An official website of the United States government

American Studies
December 1, 2018

Learning English

Learning English is key to successfully pursuing your studies in the United States. At eduPASS you can learn more about English language proficiency testing and schools offering English classes.

American English Idioms


“Darn it!” First print usage in the Chicago Tribune on August 21, 1933


Originally referring to curses in baseball, “jinx” first appeared in print in the Chicago Daily News in 1911.

Bet your bottom dollar

If you can bet your bottom dollar on something,  you can be absolutely sure about it.

Two thumbs up

The American film reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert trademarked this phrase for a “must-see” movie.

American dream

First print reference (in its usual sense) from the Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1916: “If the American idea, the American hope, the American dream, and the structures which Americans have erected are not worth fighting for to maintain and protect, they were not worth fighting for to establish.”

In a New York minute

Refers to something that happens very quickly.

Batting a thousand

(from baseball) It means to do something perfectly.

Cloud nine

A state of bliss. Aside from the name of a boat, the first known print citation referred to a radio show called Cloud Nine, produced in 1950 by WBBM and sponsored by Wrigley.

Jungle gym

Originally a Chicago-based business, the “Jungle­gym” company filed a patent application for playground equipment in 1921.


A left-handed person, especially a pitcher in baseball.


A derogatory term for an intellectual.  A 1918 letter from Carl Sandburg indicates that Chicago newspapermen used “egghead” to refer to highbrow editorial writers out of touch with the common man.  In the 1950s, the word surged in popularity when the Adlai Stevenson was branded with the term in his unsuccessful presidential campaigns.


An extremely tall building.  First print usage, 1888: Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper.


Refers to Washington D.C. and its environs located inside the 495 Interstate which encircles it.  “Inside the Beltway” refers not only to the area, but to politics in the U.S. Capitol in general.

Uncle Sam

Refers to the government of the USA.

Armchair Quarterback

(from American football) An armchair quarterback is someone who offers advice, especially about football, but never shows that they could actually do any better.

Slow as molasses in January

To be extremely slow.  Molasses is thick syrup produced, generally in the south of the U.S., from sugar cane or beets.

Lame Duck

A politician, no longer eligible for re-election, serving in the twilight period of their term in office.

Cold Turkey

First appeared in print in 1914 in the Des Moines Daily News.  It originally meant to speak plainly as in “calling a spade a spade.” But, it evolved to mean a plain, no-frills approach to giving up an addictive substance such as alcohol.

Whistling Dixie

If someone is whistling Dixie, they talk about things in a more positive way than the reality.  Dixieland also refers to the Southern U.S.