Lessons in American English, Part 1
by Dr. Manuel Pardo
June 2015

A Collection of Colloquial Expressions, Idioms or Sayings

I had my first introduction to American English shortly after I "set foot" (or arrived) in America in 1963 on a stopover in San Francisco, California. I was trying to buy postage at the hotel in order to send my first postcard back home. I asked the hotel clerk how much postage I would need to do so, and he said, "Two bits." Not wanting to show my ignorance, I handed him a dollar bill. He gave me back some coins in return, and I prayed—and trusted—that he gave me back the correct change. So guess how much "two bits" is? The answer is a "quarter," or 25 cents.

That was my first English lesson in America. Immediately after that came my second lesson. After I said, "Thank you." The hotel clerk said, "You bet." I almost said, "No, I don't gamble." But instead I just gave him a smile. I later learned the phrase meant "You're welcome."

My third lesson came after my residency began at Kansas University Medical Center and I met my first patient. After asking him, "How are you?", my patient replied, "Fine, as long as my old ticker keeps ticking." I thought he was talking about his watch. I heard Timex "keeps on ticking." I later learned he was talking about his heart.

When I first arrived on the ward at the hospital, I heard the staff refer to the unit as the "floor." Years later, when my youngest child, Patrick, called my office, my secretary said, "I'm sorry, Patrick, but your dad is on the floor." Patrick, quite alarmed, then asked, "What happened to him? Is he OK?"

One day, I heard a nurse tell one of the doctors that one of the patients had gone "bonkers" or "haywire." I just guessed it meant the patient lost control. At this point I knew I needed to learn new English words and wondered where I could find a dictionary of American "idioms" or "colloquial expressions." I went to the library and visited some bookstores. I could not find any handy reference books. I decided to keep track of words that were new to me, wrote some of them down, and asked my American friends the meaning of these new words. Before long I was using a lot of those words and phrases myself. Below are some of the ones I have compiled through the years:

"I'm all set." Means I'm all ready.
"You're all wet." Means You don't know what you're talking about.
"You got carried away." Means You got overly enthusiastic.
"I got butterflies in my stomach. Means I'm very nervous.
"Kicked the bucket." "Passed away." "Dead Ball." "Expired." "Goner." "Six feet under." "Croaked."
"Bit the dust." All of these mean Dead!
"Play possum." Means To play dead.
"Spooky." Means scary.
"The real McCoy." Means the genuine thing.
"Spick and span." Means sparkling clean, tidy.
"Red herring." Means deliberately misleading
"Rattling the cage." Means stirring up things.
"It didn't pan out." Means It failed.
"You're pulling my leg." Means "You're kidding me."
"I've got the blues" and "Down in the dumps." Mean To be depressed.
"Flipped his lid." Means "Went crazy."
"Flayky." Means emotionally unstable.
"Loony bin." "Wacko." "Go bananas." Means to go crazy.
"Went over the deep end." "Off his rocker." Means he lost his mind.
"Hit rock bottom." Means hit the lowest point in life.
"Boobs or boobies." Another term for breasts.
"The straw that broke the Camel's back." Means the decisive event.
"Take a leak." Means To urinate.
"Swallow hook, line, and sinker." Means to be gullible.
"Throw in the towel." Means to give up.
"Takes two to tango." Means both are at fault.
"Swan Song." Means farewell performance.
"Pile it on." Means To exaggerate.
"You are chicken." Means you are a coward.
"I smell a rat." Means something suspicious or a traitor.
"A pussycat." Means somebody who is mild mannered, soft at heart.
"Dead meat" and "Dead duck." Mean You've had it, or you're finished.
"Dead as a doornail." Means hopeless or no chance.
"Hit pay dirt." Means to hit the jackpot.
"Working like a dog." Means Working very hard.
"Lower the boom." "Read the riot act." Means to scold someone.
"Spill the beans" and "Open a kettle of worms." Means To open up secrets.
"Sharp as a tack." Means Very intelligent or perceptive.
"Think outside the box." Means "Don't be so narrow-minded."
"A pain in the butt." Means Someone who harasses you.
"Pissed off." "Hit the roof." "Hot under the collar." "Fly off the handle." Means Angry.
"Pissing against the wind." Means A self-defeating move.
"A smart cookie." Means A bright or intelligent person.
"Six of one and half a dozen of the other." Means It makes no difference either way.
"Water under the bridge." Means "A thing of the past." Or "It's over."
"Full steam ahead." Means Proceed at a fast pace.
"Rock the boat." Means Stir up the situation.
"Leave no stone unturned." Means To look at every possible aspect.
"A hard nut to crack." Means A stubborn person.
"Take it with a grain of salt." Means "don't take it too seriously."
"Get the ball rolling." Means proceed with the plan.
"A lot of hot air." Means Too much talk.
"Rattling his saber." Means a lot of idle threats.
"A penny pincher." Means one who saves a lot of money.
"The best bang for your buck." Means the best return for your investment.
"Where the rubber hits the road." Means when it comes to the real issue.
"Under the table." Dishonest deal done in secret.
"Pulling all the stops." Means doing everything you can.
"Asleep at the switch." Means asleep on the job. Or, caught unprepared.
"Squeeze blood out of a turnip." Means there is nothing more you can get out of somebody.
"Tongue in cheek." Means not to consider it too seriously.
"Took the wind out of my sails." Means you took away my enthusiastic ideas.
"Flash in the pan." Means a quick, short lived accomplishment.
"Making mountains out of molehills." Means making a big deal out of something minor.
"Sitting duck." Means out in the open, exposed.
"The bottom line." Means the conclusion or final say.
"The game changer." Means the evidence that leads to a new conclusion.
"The nitty gritty." Means the real substance or practical detail.