When an ELL begins speaking English outside the classroom, they will quickly notice how common American slang terms are. (If they’re in the UK, they might have to learn how to differentiate British dialects). Slang makes up a substantial portion of any language. That’s why they need to be familiar with terms that are used in the casual register to comprehend English as it is actually spoken in the US. And, teachers should incorporate them in their lesson plans.
The problem is, American slang terms and phrases are rarely covered. That’s why we’ve put together an A to Z list of some useful ones for ESL students.
This term stands for “as soon as possible” and can be spelled out as a.s.a.p. However, it is commonly pronounced as one word – eh-sap – and means “very quickly”.
Sometimes, it’s hard for native speakers to notice the phrase’s literal meaning when they are so used to hearing it as it’s actually used.
Imagine asking a colleague if they could fetch you a file ASAP. They say sure, and, then, come back with the documents the next day. You would, naturally, be irked. However, if they were busy, they really did get your file as soon as it was actually possible for them.
These details can get lost on ELLs. This example should show how ASAP doesn’t actually denote doing something when it is possible in the indeterminate future, but rather, doing it promptly.
For example, “You should sign up to become a teacher with VIPKid ASAP and start teaching English to kids on the other side of the globe!”
No, not for jail.
Bail, as an American slang term, means to leave or abandon someone or something unexpectedly. For example, “I have to bail on the movie tonight,” would mean that I cannot go watch the movie tonight. In this case, it also implies that something unexpected or out of one’s control came up which got in the way.
When used to refer to somebody else, or with less specific circumstances, it can have a more negative connotation. For example, “He bailed on his work yesterday,” has an overtone of irresponsibility.
When you have something important coming up but you haven’t prepared, what will you do? The answer, of course, is to cram.
The most common uses of this term are cramming for an exam and cramming for a presentation.
While it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re completely unprepared for something, it does imply that you don’t have the best time management skills.
In American slang, dead has many different uses. Some of them are quite tricky to use correctly.
The first is as an adverb. When someone says “I’m dead tired,” or, “I’m dead serious,” the word dead comes to mean very or completely.
The second use of dead in American slang is as an adjective that does not refer to actually being deceased. “I’m dead,” can mean “I’m tired” or, if after a humorous or awkward situation, that the situation was incredibly funny or incredibly awkward. This should bring to mind the related “I’m dying of laughter.”
The word is tricky because, although rare, the variation deadly can sometimes be used, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why and how. For example, “The situation was deadly serious,” but not, “I’m deadly tired.”
To eyeball is a verb with two different meanings.
The first means to stare at someone or something intensely and with scrutiny. For example, “The manager eyeballed Tim, the company’s newest employee.”
Recently, another usage of eyeball has become more popular in American slang. It means – to use another slang term – to guesstimate the quantity of something. For example, if James Bond were at a bar and the bartender didn’t have any jiggers, the bartender would have to eyeball three ounces of gin in his martini.
Closely related to bail, a flake is someone who makes appointments without committing to them. It can also be used as a verb, where it has the same meaning as bail. For example:
A: “How was the date with Joe?”
B: “Didn’t happen. He flaked last-minute.”
G: Go with the flow
We couldn’t omit this phrase from our A-Z list of American slang, which also doubles as timeless life advice and a theme of The Big Lebowski.
“Go with the flow” is more literal than other terms and phrases on our list. It means to go along with the flow of events. That is to say, to accept them and to make the most of what they offer.
In spoken language, it can be used when somebody is unsure about the ideal course of action in a certain scenario, but doesn’t overthink things. For example, “It was my first day at work yesterday. I didn’t know what to do. But, I decided to just go with the flow.”
If you’re teaching Chinese students, you might notice that some slang terms cross languages. Hot, meaning popular or attractive, is one of these. In Mandarin, for example, 热门, or “hot-topic”, translates to in vogue.
In English, you can describe innumerable nouns – e.g. actor, topic, movie, book, stock, etc. – as hot. It’s so widespread that it might not even be slang anymore, having risen above informal registers.
I: In no time
This phrase is a close cousin of ASAP, and means “very quickly.”
It can be used in the same way as ASAP in some cases. For example, “I can get it done ASAP/in no time.” However, there are some differences. Unlike ASAP, in no time comes off odd-sounding in the present tense, e.g. “I’m finishing the letter in no time.” But, this is not always the case. A counter example is “The game is starting in no time,” which is OK.
Another difference is that in no time should not be used with questions. Compare and contrast the following:
“Can you please finish this task ASAP?” – “Can you please finish this task in no time?”
“Will the game begin ASAP?” – “Will the game begin in no time?”
This is a common slang for stolen, used mostly in the past tense.
Here are some examples.
“My phone got jacked.”
“That guy jacked your car!”
Sometimes, it can also be used in the future tense, albeit less frequently. For example, “If you don’t put a lock on your locker, I guarantee your stuff will get jacked.”
While this guide to American slang is about spoken language rather than written, K is a case of a written abbreviation spilling over into spoken slang. Just as people often text “K” instead of “OK”, sometimes an ELL might hear this as a verbal reply, pronounced kay.
This is just one example of American spoken slang adopting SMS language. YOLO (yoh-low) and OMG (oh-em-gee) are two other examples.
Someone who goes with the flow tends to be pretty laid-back. This adjective describes a relaxed attitude to things.
It can also describe a situation or event that lacks intensity or stress. For example, “The soccer practice was pretty laid-back,” and “Our workplace culture is more laid-back than most.”
M: Monday morning quarterback
We decided to include this term on our list because it’s the most American example of American slang you can find. Even most Brits and Canadians don’t understand.
It refers to somebody who offers commentary on a situation after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight.
Football games – as in, the NFL – happen on Sunday. The quarterback is the position on the team responsible for strategy, planning, and the execution of plays. You might recognize him as the guy who throws the ball. Therefore, a Monday morning quarterback is somebody who talks strategy after the game is over.
Nuts means crazy. For example, “That guy is nuts.”
Pretty simple, right?
Not so fast. “Crazy” is also a slang in its own right, which can take on a bevy of meanings besides mentally unstable. While somewhat less common than crazy for these other meanings, nuts also conveys them.
For example, “That party last night was nuts.” This means the party was a lot of fun.
Owned means to demonstrate dominance over someone or something. In this context, you’ll probably hear it used by teenagers. For example, “You got owned,” means you lost, badly.
Besides “owning” someone, you can also own an exam, a match, or an outfit. In those cases, it means that you did well on an exam, won a match, or looked great wearing an outfit.
This one’s pretty simple.
Your pad is where you live. The most common usage is with the term bachelor pad. This is a place, usually a condo, inhabited by an unmarried guy.
Q: Quick and dirty
If you’re late somewhere or find yourself – to use another informal term – in a pickle, you’ll need to find a quick and dirty solution.
For example, if you’re running late for a conference but are hungry, you might ask the hotel kitchen staff to make your breakfast quick and dirty. Better yet, you might put some condiments between two slices of bread at the Continental to make a quick and dirty breakfast yourself.
As opposed to just “quickly”, quick and dirty emphasizes the do-it-yourself, one-time or temporary nature of your solution.
R: Ride shotgun
To ride shotgun means to sit in the front-passenger seat of a car.
If there will be more than two people riding, an ELL might be surprised to hear someone “call shotgun” to secure the front seat for themselves before another passenger.
This term can be used as an abrupt retort. After somebody says they have a question, suggestion or idea without specifying what it is, the other person can reply with “Shoot”. This means, “Let’s hear your question/idea.”
This slang can come across rude depending on the context, especially with the undertone that the other person is dilly-dallying. In these cases, the meaning is closer to shouting “Just say what you want to say already!”
T: Throw the book at (…)
You’ll rarely want to hear this one personally, unless you’re in law school.
This specific slang term refers to being handed down a heavy sentence or punishment. It is almost always used in the context of a courtroom.
For example, “The judge threw the book at him.”
To describe something as vanilla means to call it plain, unassuming or safe. In other words, something that shouldn’t elicit any strong attention or reactions.
For example, “His stand-up routine wasn’t terrible, but I it was so vanilla. Understandable, I guess – this is a cruise ship, after all.”
W: What’s good?
This is the newer version of “What’s up?”
While what’s up is still used everywhere as a greeting, including in the workplace, an ELL might be surprised to hear what’s good in less formal situations. For example, from friends.
Y: You bet
Like some other terms on this list, “You bet” is not used exclusively in America. It translates to an emphatic yes.
For a more American version, try “You betcha!” Note: Useful for those heading Midwest.
XOXO is shorthand for “hugs and kisses”. It’s mostly used when texting. However, just like K, it has also bled into spoken American slang somewhat.
I can be used, albeit very sparingly, to say goodbye.
Zip means “nothing”. An ELL is as likely to hear this slang as a standalone word as together with nada.
Here’s an example.
A: How many sales did the new guy close this month?
B: Zip. Nada.