22 Puzzling English Phrases That Leave Non-Native Speakers Scratching Their Heads

The English language has some pretty unique and rather perplexing phrases and idioms.  Many of these don’t make any literal sense, meaning non-native speakers are often stumped by what they mean. 

From “break a leg” to “cold turkey,” these expressions have a habit of leaving non-native English speakers scratching their heads. 

Shoot The Breeze

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This odd saying refers to when you spend hours talking about nothing in particular. Supposedly, from the late 19th century, where ‘breeze’ was slang for rumor, it later came to mean empty chatter at the turn of the last century. 

Tell Me About It

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Weirdly enough, this isn’t an invitation for you to continue telling someone about something. What it actually means is that they get it, or they know what you mean.

Piece Of Cake

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If something is a piece of cake, it means it’s pretty straightforward.

Cold Turkey

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This has absolutely nothing to do with turkeys. Instead, “cold turkey” is an idiom that refers to abruptly quitting something addictive without gradually reducing the frequency of it. 

Keeper

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Some foreigners find this a bizarre term for referring to their significant others. The idea of someone being a keeper seems oddly possessive.

Break A Leg

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Despite sounding incredibly threatening, this is actually a way of wishing someone luck. Apparently, saying good luck is a sure way to jinx it, so this is supposedly some sort of reverse psychology. 

It’s Not Rocket Science

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This phrase is not meant to be taken literally; it suggests something is not overly difficult. However, for those unfamiliar with the expression, it can be a strange comment, given that rocket science probably has no relevance to what was just said.

Spill The Beans/Tea

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This bizarre idiom refers to sharing gossip or telling someone a secret. It has nothing to do with either beans or tea!

 A Bat Out Of Hell

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A bat out of hell is coincidentally both a popular song by the famous American singer Meatloaf and a phrase that describes something that is moving incredibly fast. Presumably, because if a bat were to be escaping from hell, it would be traveling as fast as it could.

Chai Tea

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This is a pretty common phrase, but it makes absolutely no sense for any Hindi or Russian speakers. Given that chai literally translates to tea, it seems silly to call it ‘tea tea.’

Scoot Over

Three Women Sitting In Rear Seat Of Car On Road Trip
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This weird saying has absolutely nothing to do with scooters. It literally just means move over, but for non-Americans, it’s a bit of a weird saying to wrap your head around.

Long In The Tooth

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This phrase describes something that’s become old or gone on for too long. The saying originated in reference to horses, whose teeth continue to grow as they age. The literal meaning, however, is often somewhat baffling to non-English speakers.

Green Thumb

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Describing someone as having a green thumb doesn’t literally mean they have green-colored fingers. Rather, the phrase refers to someone who is an avid gardener or keen horticulturist who has a love for nature and all things green.

Ate It

old man with back pains
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If someone “ate it” or “ate dirt,” it means they fell over, not that they’ve actually consumed something.

The Graveyard Shift

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This has nothing to do with working in an actual cemetery. Working the graveyard shift means working the night shift because no one wants to do it, and the hours are usually pretty dead. 

Ballpark Figure

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Weirdly, this phrase has no relation to sports and is actually a financial term that refers to some sort of numerical estimate.

Putting Lipstick On A Pig

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To any non-American, this is a very odd expression to hear. Putting lipstick on a pig means attempting to make something less ugly superficially.

Break A Bill

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This doesn’t mean splitting the bill at a restaurant or physically breaking a note up. Breaking a bill is a saying used when you want to break a larger bill into smaller ones to have some spare change.

Mystery Meat

Young woman buying canned food at grocery store.
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This bizarre and slightly ominous Americanism often baffles foreigners. The weird thing is that it refers to processed meat like spam that’s comprised of unknown animal parts, which some Americans enjoy eating.

Don’t Be Such A Wet Blanket

Young woman getting bored during first date
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This quirky idiom confuses many foreigners. Calling someone a wet blanket implies they have a habit of dampening the mood or ruining everyone else’s time. 

Fanny Pack

Blue eco Leather fanny pack for men, women, teenagers, travel fanny pack, blue belt bag, man waist pack, women bag.
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A fanny pack or bum bag doesn’t refer to something vulgar, as some people may think. It refers to one of those zipper bags you wear around your waist.

Let’s Table That

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Tabling something is a slightly odd phrase used when you want to ‘shelve’ something or revisit it later. It seems counterintuitive to most non-native English speakers, who may think putting something on the table means putting it in front of you and addressing it now.

Language Is Confusing

I don't know what to say. Confused Indian Arabian woman feeling embarrassed about ambiguous question, having doubts, no idea, being clueless and uncertain. Young Hindu girl at home room on couch
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The English language can be confusing, especially for non-native speakers. If you’re learning English, these quirky phrases may leave you scratching your head. However, these bizarre and often inexplicable expressions have a habit of throwing off even the best of linguists, but at the end of the day, they’re what make it such an expressive language.

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