4 American English Idioms all ESL Students Should Know


While all languages have their own idiosyncrasies, American English is blessed with a constantly changing set of slang words and idioms. Words that used to originally mean something specific and have a certain connotation, now, in some cases, mean the exact opposite. For teachers who teach the English language to non-native speakers, it’s especially important that they share with their students these idioms, so that students have a better idea of how the language is actually spoken today. Below is a list of very common American English idioms that should become part of every ESL student’s vocabulary. They’re fun to learn, too!

1. Wicked.
For hundreds of years, the word “wicked” has traditionally been an adjective to describe a person, thing, or situation as “evil.” At some point, however, “wicked” began to be used by those from the Boston, Massachusetts, area to mean almost the exact opposite. Instead of having a bad connotation, “wicked” now can be used to describe something that’s “cool.” It also should be noted that wicked can be used as a replacement for “very,” as in “it’s wicked cold outside” to mean that “it’s very cold outside.” Although the slang use of the word wicked is not as prevalent beyond the East Coast of the United States, anyone in America would understand it.

2. Blows.
“To blow” in its traditional usage in English is a verb that describes what a person does when she produces a current of air. “Blow” can also mean to hit or punch someone or something with a strong force. In American slang, however, “blows” has a distinctly negative connotation. When you don’t like a person, when you find him incompetent or irritating, you can say that “he blows.” “Blow,” in this sense, can also be used for objects or situations. For example, you can say “this new iPhone 5 blows” or “going to school on a Saturday blows.”

3. Chick/dude.
There are many occasions in daily conversation in which a speaker may need to refer to another person without wanting or needing to use their name. For example, if you are trying to point a stranger in a crowd to a friend, you might say, “Look at that man over there.” If you are having an informal conversation, the words “chick” for woman and “dude” for man can often be replaced. While it’s not certain how chick and dude came to be used in American English idiomatically, we now use “chick” and “dude” for “woman” or “man” extremely often. Be aware, however, that you shouldn’t address adults or strangers you’ve just met in such a fashion, as it can come across as disrespectful. Use “chick” and “dude” around close friends or around those whom you feel comfortable around.

4. Flip out.
Whenever speakers who are relatively new to the English language hear the word “flip,” they probably think of a coin being tossed into the air or “flipped,” or a gymnast who does a somersault. When you add the word “out” after “flip,” however, you get a very interesting American expression, which means to be angered or stunned. For example, your little brother broke your classic guitar, which you very much loved. If you got angry with him and maybe yelled at him, we can say that you “flipped out.” “Flip out” need not necessarily be an angry expression of emotion, although most of the time it is. You can also “flip out” whenever you are extremely happy. For example, you haven’t seen your parents in a long time, and they surprised you with a visit. When you saw them, you were so excited that you “flipped out.”
Of course, this is just a short list of American slang expressions that isn’t meant to be exhaustive. Use this list as a starting point to find more idioms that can enrich your students’ understanding of the living, breathing, constantly changing American English language. Good luck!


Lauren Bailey is a freelance writer and blogger who loves to write about education. Her primary focus is higher education, but she also enjoys guiding readers of all backgrounds through the learning process. Read more of her writing at www.bestcollegesonline.com. Lauren welcomes your comments and questions below!

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