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Teacher Talk

Understanding American English Phrases


United States

Greetings everyone!  It is my pleasure to return to writing mini lessons on understanding American English phrases.

For those of you who have been following my mini-lessons, I want to apologize to you (especially to those who wrote comments) for my mistake in deleting the posts.  If anyone wants a copy of the last 9 mini-lessons, please send me an email with “Request Mini Lessons” on the subject line and I’ll send you a copy.

We left off on the following phrases:

Hand-over-fist / Between a rock and a hard place / Back in the day

Since I’m starting over, this will be Mini Lesson No. 1, so “on with the show!”

1. Hand-over-fist 

This phrase is used primarily when describing someone/something that is earning money in a fast profitable manner.  Please study the following examples:

1. Henry and his brother Jack had an idea to sell flavored bottle water to people on the island, and they were making money “hand over fist” in their  business endeavor!

2.  Money lenders can make money “hand-over-fist” by charging various transaction fees.

3.  You can make money “hand over fist” if you supply goods to a market with strong demand and no competition.

Background of the phrase:  The origin of this phrase appears to be nautical from sailors who would reel in rope by placing a hand on the rope and pulling and then placing and pulling with the other hand, thereby, using a hand-over-hand motion until the rope was completely in. This phrase is commonly used in everyday American English by someone who wants to quickly convey the message of somebody making money fast, there may be some sarcasm in their tone of voice.  The other person may reply, “yes and they were laughing all the way to the bank!” (phrase for another lesson, try to understand the context)

2.  Between a rock and a hard place

 This phrase indicates that a person is in an unfavorable position of having to make a decision which has choices that are undesirable.  In literal terms, it would express the thought of something caught between a rock and something else hard.  Whatever the hard place is, the result is the same, that is, entrapment.  Consider the examples:

1. Sally says to her mother: “Mom, I have 2 important tests to take for my final examination in school and I only have time to study for 1 of them, I’m really stuck “between a rock and a hard place,” help!”

Mom to Sally: Sally, why did you wait so late to study, you should have allowed yourself enough time!”  Sally to Mom: “Mom, that’s water under the bridge!” (another lesson, understand by the context)

2. The company’s policy was never to eliminate personnel due to financial reasons, however, the economy is so bad that they may have to go out of business unless they can reduce the budget.  Therefore, the company is “between a rock and a hard place” not to eliminate employees.

3. My parents are not in good health and need my help, however, I must work to be able to support them.  I am “between a rock and a hard place” to decide what to do?  

You can understand from the examples above that being “between a rock and a hard place” means having to make a difficult decision with either decision not being desirable.

Background of the phrase:  From Greek mythology of Odyssey.  This phrase is used commonly in everyday English.

3. Back in the day

This is a relatively new phrase that is being used to describe something that happened in the past.

1. “Back in the day” before computers, we relied on writing letters or sending telegrams instead of simply sending an email! 

2. “Back in the day” in high school, chess was a very popular game to play!

3. “Back in the day” during the 1950’s and 1960’s, love song lyrics were very romantic!

You can see from the use of this phrase that it is referring to something that happened during a time in the past that the speaker is causing the listener to refer to.

Background of the phrase:  This is a slang phrase that came from American urban life which has made it’s way into mainstream American English.  It’s used in informal conversation by young and old.

Well, it’s good to be back, thanks for all of the emails and friend requests I’ve received.  Some of you are really serious about learning English and I’ll do my best to help you understand authentic American English. 

Here is my suggestion for you to learn English: Read, Write, Speak and think in English!

Until the next time!

07:11 AM May 15 2010 |

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United States

Thanks PinkButterfly for the suggestion, I plan to include it for the lesson after the one I'm working on which was suggested by Vmaestro for some information on slang.  Therefore, stay tuned for the next lesson, after that, I'll return to American English phrases.

02:47 AM Jun 04 2010 |



That is indeed beneficial!

01:44 AM Jun 05 2010 |


United States

Well here we are again, thanks to the suggestion of Vmaestro and the encouragement of Daisy. I have taken the time since the last lesson to compile a list of commonly used slang words from the United States. These everyday words are used along with phrases, verbal phrases, and idioms.  Therefore, if you listen to native speakers, knowing only textbook English, you will not understand a lot of the conversation, especially among young people.  It is my goal to help you add knowledge to your database of English learning so you will be able to understand what is being said.  Most of these slang words you will not find in American English literature, however, you may hear some of them on television or the movies.


For your information, I am writing a mini ebook on the subject of "Understanding American English Phrases" which will include mini lessons of information on understanding phrases, techniques on learning English, pronunciation and a reference section with links.  If you would like to be among the first to purchase a down-loadable copy, please send me an email requesting to be informed when it is available, hopefully within 45 days.

Mini Lesson No. 3  Slang Words in the following post





05:33 AM Jun 16 2010 |


United States

Mini Lesson No. 3 – Slang Words

 1.  a fox = a pretty female

 2.  a high five = hitting hands together in mid-air with someone to show approval

 3.  a rip off = a bad deal

 4.  back off = stop doing something

 5.  bad = nice, good, or acceptable

 6.  beat it = go away (spoken in a strong tone)

 7.  big time = in a big way

 8.  boob tube = a television set

 9.  broke = having no money

10. catch you on the rebound = see you later

11. chick = a female (usually attractive)

12. chill = advise someone to relax

13. chill out = stop worrying

14. chilling = relaxing

15. cool = nice, desirable status

16. copping some zz's = getting some sleep

17. dis = to disrespect someone

18. double dip = doing something twice

19. dude = man

20. dump = to quit a relationship with someone

21. fly = ultra cool, quick thinking person

22. freaking out = getting mad or upset

23. girl friend = the title of a female friend

24. going off = beginning to act crazy

25. heels = walking state

26. hold tight = wait

27. homie = a close friend

28. hot = something desirable or something stolen

29. kicking it = relaxing (usually at home)

30. loot = money

31. mojo working = the mood of a person working to successfully accomplish something

32. moola = money

33. on the horn = while on the telephone

34. ride = a car

35. ripped off = having something stolen or to be taken advantage of by someone

36. roll = to go somewhere in a car or continue in something

37. screwed = taken advantage of

38. that's what I'm talking about = being in strong agreement with someone or something

39. that's dog = that's not acceptable, doing someone wrongly

40. the blues = being in a depressed mood

41. the crib = your home

42. the hood = your neighborhood

43. throw down = to fight

44. tripping = beginning to act crazy or react in response to worry

45. uptight = worried about something

46. what's up? = a greeting between friends

47. wheels = a car

48. YES = to highly approve of something, affirmation (spoken strongly)

49. yo = attention or a greeting

50. you go girl = to encourage a female friend as the result of her doing something

51. 24/7 = twenty four hours a day/7 days a week, in other words, all the time

Well there you have it, some commonly used slang words used in the United States, usually among young people but not always.  

The next lesson will be one suggested by PinkButterfly on:

Easy come, easy go / A bone to pick with you /Get out of Dodge 

Until the next time, immersion is the key to learning English!

06:28 AM Jun 16 2010 |




nice lesson.

02:45 PM Jun 17 2010 |




u're very kind man to help other ppl  really thx.

but about pronunciation i need to know how to pronunce these phrases

thx again

04:51 PM Jun 17 2010 |


United States

Thanks. That's a helpful of slang terms:o)

05:15 PM Jun 19 2010 |


United States

Thanks for the comments Crkj, braveheart and PinkButterfly.  Concerning pronunciation you would speak them as written but add some emphasis since it would be the focal point of the sentence.

In the case of someone saying "YES," it probably is spoken with the most emphasis since it's a response to a very strong agreement to something.  For example, if you were studying intensely to pass a certain examination and if you received a 100% test score, someone using slang would say "YES" with their fist clinched and moving it from an upper position to a lower position to display how happy they were with their test result and would use the slang phrase, "THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT!"

You would not read this in a textbook because it's a native thing, that's why I'm teaching it to you here!

06:32 AM Jun 22 2010 |




Hi mr Alston,thanks a lot for this useful lesson..:) I got a question about their slang degree..have they got a degree for each like,"weak slang,mid-grave or like  too slang"?

12:16 PM Jun 22 2010 |


United States

Good question Meyra, I only included the most popular slang words,  but I tried to focus on those that you're likely to encounter with mostly young people in the United States.

02:03 PM Jun 22 2010 |