Top American Phrases That Don’t Translate Well

written by Tiana Kai
Lost In Translation

WARNING: this post is filled with naughty words.

After being in a country long enough you start to notice weird phrases that don’t seem to make much sense. Each culture has their own sayings or phrases, even each region of a culture or country. So, rather than investigate Italian phrases I thought it would be more interesting to jot down typical American phrases that we use so freely without really thinking about how others interpret them.

So, we begin:

  • you’re off the hook
  • I’m off the clock, so let’s go grab a drink
  • the drinks are on the house
  • don’t quit your day job
  • I’ll take a rain check and see you next week
  • give me a ballpark figure
  • he works like a dog
  • that’s peanuts, I can totally buy one
  • I’m so pumped 
  • I’m there like a bear
  • She is sick as a dog
  • Wow, he’s going to town on that sandwich
  • her drunken rage is now in full effect, watch out
  • he’s totally shit faced
  • he quit cold turkey
  • that’s so Mickey Mouse
  • FYI, she can make a mean risotto
  • pull my finger
  • I can eat a house
  • it’s about to go down
  • this is going to get ugly
  • I’m going to totally pig out
  • that’s a piece of cake
  • the laundry basket was filled to the brim
  • she was carrying her kid in tow
  • are you shitting me?
  • I parked my car in BFE
  • he’s so loaded, he’s filthy rich
  • she’s so loaded, she’s naked wasted
  • just pop a squat and pee behind the bush
  • he’s going to pop the question
  • she’ll wear a lace dress on the big day
  • just bury the hatchet and make up already
  • I forgot my passport, I’m totally up shit creek without a paddle
  • the shit hit the fan
…and the American phrases list keeps growing the more I notice the silly things that come out of my mouth
  • that’s so Old School (I actually tried to translate this in Italian the other day… it didn’t work)
  • she flaked out on me last night
  • that’s a slap in the face
  • don’t push your luck
  • that’s worth diddly squat
  • that girl, she’s really something else!
  • tell me, I’m all ears
  • don’t plan just yet, let’s just play it by ear
  • that should do the trick
  • let’s kill time
  • bring home the bacon!
  • hold your horses! (my husband just said this to me, he knows his English)
  • when pigs fly

Side note: Can you imagine trying to learn a language in which four words that are spelled in completely different ways all sound the same: bi, bye, buy and by… English is hard!

Which phrases have I missed? There are so many good ones, I couldn’t remember them all.

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41 comments

Samuel Webster December 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm

That second last one is Australian!
(creek, FYI)

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Tiana Kai Madera on Facebook December 14, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Sam Webster lol, what’s wrong with me?! Oh well… we used to use that one all the time growing up.

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Sam Webster on Facebook December 14, 2012 at 4:34 pm

I could be wrong.

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Tiana Kai Madera on Facebook December 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Well, getting stuck without a paddle (especially in a creek of merda) would suck for anyone, Australian or American. 🙂

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Donato Mangialardo December 14, 2012 at 5:23 pm

mmhh let’s see…
Let’s give him a soft ball
Going nuts
The system went funny
Cracking up laughing
Dropping the kids off at the pool
Going talk to a man about a horse
You are pulling my leg

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Tiana Kai December 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Ha, Donato, I love all of those… my god there are so many good ones!! I like ‘pulling my leg’!

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Donato Mangialardo December 14, 2012 at 5:33 pm

If I wanted to cheat, I’d pull Beppe Severgnini’s books. Witty, Funny and Informative stuff.

Also, my wife used to make up phrases like “are you crazy? I don’t want to live over there [some city by SF]. It’s in the *ass of the wolves*” Meaning quite remote or so. It sounded about right. People were laughing but they got it. Besides, we were new to the US so we were sort of allowed to mess up with the language 😉

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Tiana Kai December 14, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Haha, that’s a good one. There is a phrase like that we use, BFE… but really bad, in order to say you are in the middle of nowhere. Maybe I will just tell you that one when I see you next week. haha. Oh, I am going to add ‘pig out’ to the list.

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Georgette Jupe December 14, 2012 at 6:08 pm

we say “off the clock” in America too 😉

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susie white December 14, 2012 at 6:59 pm

how the heck do you say ‘get a life’ in italian???????? it is my biggest dilemma and probably the expression i would most like to use! any help?

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Tiana Kai December 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Ha, Susie, that’s a great one, I would just say ‘ma vafanculo’, since it pretty much means to go ‘screw off’. My Italian kinda agrees… good question!

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Kari Milici on Facebook December 15, 2012 at 7:00 am

Hey u like talk story?

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Kari Milici on Facebook December 15, 2012 at 7:02 am

Pau hana sista

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Tiana Kai Madera on Facebook December 15, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Kari american, no havaiiii talk sista. lol. nes time you get um

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Leigh December 16, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Speaking with my (Italian) fiance I received a confused look with the phrase “I should get off my a$$” and do something.

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Leigh December 16, 2012 at 10:41 pm

BTW, Love the blog 🙂

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Tiana Kai December 17, 2012 at 10:33 am

Hi Leigh, thanks! And thanks for adding another great phrase! 🙂

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Liz December 18, 2012 at 3:08 am

I’m so PUMPED to see a phrase coined my by dear Real Housewives of Orange County – “Naked Wasted” !!!

This is a great post!

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Tiana Kai December 18, 2012 at 9:38 am

LOL, ya Liz, I had to throw that in there! thanks 🙂

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Cassandra December 23, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I’m from Arkansas and there they say “up a creek,” too!

I can’t help laughing at how “Old School” must have come across. I have to stop myself from literally translating into Spanish, too, especially after asking a friend to “Give me a hand.” Turns out the Spanish say something more along the lines of “Extend a hand to me.” Whoops.

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Tiana Kai December 24, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Cassandra, that’s a good one, ‘give me a hand’! Italians use ‘ti do una mano’, which means the same thing… it’s probably the only English phrase that translates well! It’s amazing how it feels like the English language is filled with these sayings and that we probably don’t live a day without saying at least one.

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Hasan Niyazi December 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Interesting post highlighting one of the many fun things about the English language which also presents the greatest challenges for learners. In fact it could be argued that the ability use such phrases naturally are a sign of having mastered the language.

We have many such phrases in Australia specifically, called “Australianisms” – some of which are of course inherited from UK. My favourite distortion of the English language is the “rhyming slang” used in parts of London which apparently developed as a form of code to mask less than lawful activities.

Cheers
H

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Kaley December 30, 2012 at 7:25 pm

I have a good translation for flake out in Spain Spanish (dunno about other countries) “Rajarse” (“Se rajó a última hora.)

Bam!

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Tiana Kai December 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Hasan, I’ve never heard of ‘rhyming slang’… amazing how many versions there are to say the same thing! My husband knew all but one, which proves your theory. It must be extremely difficult to learn English especially when trying to pronounce most word, since there doesn’t seem to be any hard set rules like in Italian. It’s always fun to use different phrases, especially when you know the meaning behind the usage.

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Tiana Kai December 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Kaley, I like that one, never heard it before. Crazy how every Spanish country has their own way of saying EVERYTHING… this has gotten me into trouble since a good word in Cuba means a naughty word in Puerto Rico. The list goes on.

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tianakai January 16, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Kaley, I like that one, never heard it before. Crazy how every Spanish country has their own way of saying EVERYTHING… this has gotten me into trouble since a good word in Cuba means a naughty word in Puerto Rico. The list goes on.

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tianakai January 16, 2013 at 9:07 pm

Hasan, I’ve never heard of ‘rhyming slang’… amazing how many versions there are to say the same thing! My husband knew all but one, which proves your theory. It must be extremely difficult to learn English especially when trying to pronounce most word, since there doesn’t seem to be any hard set rules like in Italian. It’s always fun to use different phrases, especially when you know the meaning behind the usage.

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Newmexicotoitaly.wordpress July 23, 2013 at 6:14 pm

“Jumped the shark” and “back at ya” both stumped my almost-perfect English-speaking language exchange partner…

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Tiana Kai July 23, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Those are good ones! You don’t hear jumped the shark too often, my husband will love that one!

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Linda November 9, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Try using “when pigs fly”. My foreign friends love that American slang. 😉

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Tiana Kai November 10, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Oh Linda that’s a great one, can’t believe I missed that! Thanks. 😉

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Shauntee Joseph December 20, 2013 at 8:01 pm

“You’re trippin'” It means you’re crazy. If the boss asks you to come in to work on the weekend? He’s trippin’

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Tiana Kai December 26, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Hey Shauntee! I used to use that phrase more back in school, it’s a good one, thanks for comment!

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Luca Boccianti August 26, 2014 at 2:41 am

for some of the phrases you listed there are actually some more or less literal translation used more or less commonly.

he works like a dog, sick like a dog: lavora come un cane, ammalato come un cane (literal, same meaning)

that’s peanuts: sono bruscolini (bruscolini are toasted, salted pumpkin seed, very cheap. almost literal, same meaning)

a mean risotto (un risotto da paura, a risotto you’ll have to be afraid because of it’s very good taste).

bury the hatchet: seppellire l’ascia di guerra (literal, same meaning), but one may also want to use “spezzare una lancia”, break a lance: doing or saying someting favourable about someone who is not liked by the audience or making one step to the gradual resolution of a quarrel expecting other side does the same.

maybe old school could be translated as “analogico” if you are talking with IT geeks.

don’t push your luck: non esagerare, “nun t’allargà” (this is roman dialect, but I guess understood all around Italy nowaday, literally meaning “don’t make yourself wide”)

I’m all ears: sono tutto orecchie (literal, same meaning, typical answer is something like “my, how ugly you are!”)

play it by ear: suonare ad orecchio, literal, same meaning but used only when talking about actually playing music. one would say “improvviseremo”, we’ll improvise, or “vedremo”, we’ll see, “qualcosa ci inventeremo”, we’ll invent something.

kill time: ammazzare il tempo, literal, same meaning but a bit retro and nowaday I guess considered a bit creepy. passare il tempo may be more like it.

hold your horses: frena la mula! (stop the she-mule!, used in some rural areas and in the cities to mock the rurals)

when pigs fly: quando piscia la gallina, when the chiken will pee, that is, never.

I know the meaning of some of the other phrases even if I can’t translate them with another short prase, but i don’t really understand the other ones. maybe you could attempt an italian explanation?

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Tiana Kai August 26, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Thanks for all of these. Each culture has their saying, some are different but are used for the same intent, which I think you did a great job at explaining. I am better at translating from Italian, not TO Italian.

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Luca Boccianti August 26, 2014 at 2:46 am

there’s not a literal translation… one would say something like “ma falla finita”, c’mon stop it, “ma piantala con le fesserie”, enough BS, or “pensa alle cose serie”, think to the serious thing [in life]. but I guess they are all less aggressive than I intend get a life.

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Information on Italian phrases or phrases that don’t translate instantly into English | Posts November 10, 2014 at 6:20 am

[…] Top American phrases that don’t translate well… an ongoing list – 14 December, 2012 – blogger: Tiana Kai. Location: Firenze (FI), Italy – Supply: Tiana Kai in Florence – “Dwelling in Florence, consuming & touring round sharing tales, ideas & too many pictures” […]

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JoshB February 21, 2015 at 7:55 am

It’s raining cats & dogs!

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Tiana Kai February 28, 2015 at 10:18 pm

Oh, ya!!

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[…] If you liked The Expat Hub’s favorite articles then you will enjoy these: Italians like it in the armpit How to do laundry like an Italian No shame pizza bath (nudity is funny) Wedding dress drama (crying is funny) Top American phrases that don’t translate well […]

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cynthia black December 14, 2018 at 10:18 am

On my Bucket list
REALLY doesn’t translate!!
I have an American friend married to an Italian (like me) I live in Firenze.
She just comes once a year to Florence from D.C. and does her best speaking Italian while here.
However….She doesn’t realize that saying “una lista dal secchio ” is absolute nonsense in Italian.
Funny!!!

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