English, in both its British and American variants, is full of sayings and catchphrases that can seem cryptic to non-native speakers. Sayings are often rooted in a country’s culture and linguistics, and understanding them can open up a new window into the mindset and culture of its population.
Sometimes, when on holiday, as well as on formal occasions and during business meetings, knowing some catchphrases and sayings in British or American English can be a big help for establishing a closer connection with people, and prevent you from making embarrassing mistakes.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common English and American sayings. Our examples and explanations should give you the confidence you need to navigate some of the most original and commonly used expressions.
The most common sayings in English
By examining a few simple examples, we soon see that differences between British English and American English appear in everyday language. If you are looking for somewhere to stay, you will use the word ‘flat’ in English but say ‘apartment‘ in American instead.
The Italian word ‘antipasto’ becomes an ‘appetiser‘ in American and ‘starter‘ in British English. And when talking about taking a break, you will hear ‘vacation‘ in the US and ‘holiday’ in Britain.
It therefore follows that there are also differences between English and American sayings.
Let’s start with some Italian sayings with English equivalents that sound quite similar. ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ is the equivalent saying to our own ‘A caval donato non si guarda in bocca’. Depending on the context in which it is said, it can also be translated as ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’, i.e.: ‘Questo è quel che passa il convento’.
One of the easiest English sayings to remember, which can be used on a variety of occasions is the popular ‘Bob’s your uncle’. It is an exclamation of satisfaction you can say when a problem is solved and is more or less the same as: ‘There you go’ or ‘And that’s it!’.
American sayings also include some unique expressions. Never be offended if in the United States someone tells you to ‘Break a leg!’; this is one of the many sayings used in English to wish someone good luck, equivalent in fact to the Italian saying ‘In bocca al lupo’.
American slang is full of expressions that are sometimes rather strong and colourful, and these can vary from state to state, given the vast size of the country. But there are some American sayings that are well-known and frequently used everywhere, from north to south. For example, if someone warns you to beware of ‘monkey business’, they are not talking about cute zoo animals on the roam, but referring to cheaters and scams you should watch out for.
And here’s an idiomatic expression that might mislead you: ‘All over the map’ is often used when you want to say that you’ve missed the point of an argument or to describe a person who lives life their own individual way.
American travel-themed sayings also include the cool expression ‘To catch the red-eye’: it means to catch a flight that leaves very late at night. And if something doesn’t go as you had hoped, you can shrug it off casually and throw out one of the classic American sayings: ‘Bite the bullet’ which is like our own ‘Stringi i denti e ingoia il rospo’.
A few examples? ‘Bad news travels fast’ is not only the correct translation of a typically Italian saying – ‘Le brutte notizie viaggiano veloci’ – into English, but is also one of the most popular catchphrases in the English-speaking world.
As is ‘Speak of the devil’, another phrase made in English that is akin to our ‘A parlar del diavolo… spuntano le corna’. When, on the other hand, at the restaurant one decides to ‘pagare alla romana’, as we say in Italy, the English equivalent is ‘To go Dutch’. Finally, when it comes to expressions related to the world of tourism, if you are looking for a destination ‘Off the beaten track’ it means that you are seeking somewhere as yet unknown to the commercial tourism industry.