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‘White Elephant’? 10 American Phrases That Baffle the Rest of the World

Jake Rossen
Not all slang translates well.
Not all slang translates well. / Tara Moore/DigitalVision via Getty Images
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American slang and idioms can liven up a conversation, but if English isn’t your native language, phrases like couch potato or white elephant can be easily misunderstood.

Puzzle hub im-a-puzzle.com recently analyzed Google searches for common American expressions and looked for spikes in various foreign countries. Based on this data, the following seem to be the most perplexing to those outside of the U.S.:

1. Over the Moon

The phrase, which expresses excitement, has roots in the 19th century, and may be related to the Mother Goose rhyme “Hey, Diddle, Diddle,” which features a cow hurling itself over the moon.

2. Devil’s Advocate

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this expression, which often means to deliberately champion a contrarian or unpopular opinion, to the 16th century. At that time, it was taken more literally, with lawyers brought in to argue against or challenge a person’s pending sainthood in the Catholic Church.

3. Bucket List

This phrase became more commonplace after the release of the 2006 film The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson, which it featured two older men with terminal illnesses looking to fulfill their ambitions before kicking the bucket.

4. Pain in the Neck

This saying—which speaks to a feeling of irritation (or a person who provides such irritation)—doesn’t appear to translate well outside of the U.S. and UK.

5. No Pain, No Gain

“No blank, no blank” has been used to express the idea that no benefit comes without sacrifice since the 1500s, but this particular iteration seems unique to the U.S. The parallel clauses can also convey ideas or lessons, like first come, first served or here today, gone tomorrow.

6. Playing With Fire

While the idea behind this expression is innate—virtually everyone understands fire and the dangers posed therein—this metaphor for taking unnecessary or foolish risks is largely lost on those outside the United States.

7. Piece of Cake

While the U.S. and UK are familiar with this phrase, which marks something easily performed or achieved, it’s not widely used elsewhere.

8. White Elephant

Even people in North America aren’t terribly familiar with this phrase, which refers to an impressive-looking but ultimately costly liability. One apocryphal theory as to its origins states that kings in Thailand would gift a white elephant to courtiers or to anyone else who had irked them, knowing their maintenance costs would bleed them dry.

Those outside the U.S. are also likely unfamiliar with white elephant parties, which are arranged to exchange gifts that have no use for the current owner.

9. Couch Potato

This derisive term for someone who spends an excessive amount of time watching television dates back to the 1970s and may have sprung from the phrase boob tuber.

10. Dog Days of Summer

The phrase to describe unpleasant heat in the thick of summer may have origins in Sirius, or the “dog star,” which the Greeks noticed rose in July along with the sun; they figured it was responsible for the added heat.

Search data indicates Iceland might be the most puzzled by American idioms, followed by the Bahamas and Singapore. For more on which phrases confused each country, head over to im-a-puzzle.com.

This article has been updated to reflect that white elephants were believed to have been given by kings in Thailand to courtiers and others who might have displeased them, which was not clarified in the original version.

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