I live outside the US and the UK. I just started reading a book titled "Speak English like an American". The book teaches numerous idioms but I don't know if these idioms are usable outside the the US.

Are there any characteristics that help a learner to recognize the origin of an idiom?

As an example, is there a process I can follow to determine which of these idioms are American, English or Australian in origin?

  • go belly-up
  • give someone the ax
  • sharp as a tack
  • top dollar
  • gung ho
  • not give a hoot
  • stand a chance
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    The following is an interesting paper on this issue: Idioms – Differences and Usage in American English and British merikari.wordpress.com/2007/01/23/… – user66974 Jun 5 '15 at 6:08
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    As to Q3, you could invest in a good idioms dictionary. The Collins Cobuild Pocket Idioms Dictionary is one such, and states in the Introduction: "If an idiom is used only or mainly in one geographical variety of English, we show this at the beginning of the explanation, for example by putting 'British' or 'mainly American'". So, for example, it identifies to go nuclear (become enraged) as a British idiom. And out of left field (unexpected) as mainly American. As a BE speaker myself, and not familiar with baseball, this was totally opaque until I saw the explanation. – Shoe Jun 5 '15 at 9:18
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    VOTED to reopen. Too broad my foot... there are two answers after four days. – Mari-Lou A Jun 8 '15 at 22:11
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    Here's a way to test each of those phrases: use google NGrams for each phrase, but compare British with American corpora. For example, (sharp as a tack):eng_gb_2012,(sharp as a tack):eng_us_2012. Of course consider all the usual caveats with Google NGrams. – Mitch Jun 8 '15 at 23:19
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    The question is still too broad, in my opinion. The list could be subsumed into Question 3. But Question 3? SE questions should ask one thing, in order that answers may answer it and the asker may choose the answer which helped them best. What this question calls for is a treatise on the usage of American idioms outside America. 'If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much." I attempted to get the three questions into a manageable form, in order to help with that, and failed. Others may do better. – Andrew Leach Jun 9 '15 at 5:41

The rule of thumb is, I think, that the Brits are much more likely to be familiar with American idioms than the other way round. We have been relentlessly exposed to them since the war; Murricans have been exposed to ours only if they are fans of Monty Python, Blackadder and The Office, which not all of them are.

For example, my own language is infiltrated by baseball metaphors that I do not actually understand: home run, left field, strike out etc. in addition to the obvious ball-park. An American using cricketing metaphors like sticky wicket, knocked for six or stumped, I don't think so.

You probably know the classic traps. British smokers in the US ought not say that they are going out for a fag. Do not invite hungry Leftpondians to look for a chippy. (Personal experience there) A British girl on a transatlantic ship who wished to make an early start asked my handsome Canadian friend to come and knock her up at eight o'clock, and, as a gentleman, he obliged....

  • You should add links to the different idioms, just in case our American friends do not get it. Love the answer btw! – Mari-Lou A Jun 5 '15 at 7:27
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    @Mari-Lou: How do I make a link to personal experiences? If they don't get it, let them ask. – David Pugh Jun 5 '15 at 7:33
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    OK, the only one I'm unclear about is "chippy" which I know is slang for (fish) and chips restaurant/takeaway (AmEng french fries). What does chippy mean for Americans? Oh, that your American friend didn't know where to look...? – Mari-Lou A Jun 5 '15 at 7:36
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    @Mari-Lou: Prostitute. Might be regional. The Canadian came from B.C., but I think it works at least in the Pacific North-West of the USA. BTW, again for our American friends, the British "chippy" is or was the fish-and-chip shop, not the dish. The chips are not much like the french fries Americans know, but fat and greasy. The whole thing is, of course, a cholesterol bomb, but walking past a chippy can evoke a Pavlovian response in Brits of a certain age. (Walking past an American chippy, let's not go there.) – David Pugh Jun 5 '15 at 7:43
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    We Americans have to suffer through all sorts of nautical idiom thanks to you all. You can handle a few baseball terms, I'm sure. And slam-dunk to boot. Also, I live in Seattle, and chippy doesn't mean anything about prostitution or food. – stevesliva Jun 8 '15 at 3:59


This is like asking how many words are in the English language. Everyone is different, words are created everyday (and fade away slowly), so naming a specific number is misleading. But for a single idiom, you can compare it’s frequency of usage in the US vs UK using corpora (COA/BNC or Google NGrams)


First a general observation: for questions of these sorts that involve all of a set (however well defined), it will always depend. A particular idiom may be one in the US and not in the UK, and the other way for another. And everything is vague, with degrees of acceptability.

But to answer your explicit questions directly:

  • (The main question) 1. How many British and American idioms are either very similar or identical? Is it possible to give a rough estimate or percentage?

Answer: This is a terribly broad question. The concept of a word is already slippery, an idiom even moreso, especially with figurative meanings. How many words are there in the English language? There’s no good quantitative assessment of that. The OED says it has 171,000 words. Are all of those in every ‘English’ speaker’s head. It is said that most adults have vocabulary of 20 to 30 thousand. Not everybody recognizes or uses the same vocabulary. Even though the number of idioms should be much less, what is an idiom in AmE and what is one in BrE needs lots of interviews with individuals to ask them what they recognize and what sounds normal to them, a daunting task. This task has so much variability and vagueness involved that any kind of percentage estimate will be meaningless. Now that’s for the entire (not well defined) set of idioms in both varieties.

Or more mathematically speaking, you are asking: what is the set of American idioms, what is the set of British idioms, what is the intersection of these two sets. And the response is that these sets are too vague to define precisely; membership of any particular idiom in any of these sets is probabilistic (even for an individual speaker they are fuzzy).

So, no, there is no way to give a percentage because defining idiom, defining British vs American, and then counting are all so vague and problematic that math just doesn’t apply.

  • Question 2: Is it OK to use an American idiom in a British setting?

Answer: Assuming that you know that an idiom is American and not British (and these labels are pretty slippery), it’ll be acceptable if it is recognizable. That’s sort of empty because what does acceptable mean other than that it is recognizable. I don’t think you’ll be thrown out of English high court for it (but a bunch of old white dudes in wigs might laugh at you or you might never be allowed to see the Queen again).

If no one recognizes the idiom then it’s probably not ‘OK’ or rather it will just be weird since no one will understand you.

As someone else said, American media is more pervasive than British so (in a very vague sense) more idioms with specifically American origins will be understood in the UK than the other way round.

  • Question 3: Are there any characteristics that help a learner to recognize the origin of an idiom?

I’ve been giving the impression that there’s no hope here but that’s not really the case. I’m sure there are numerous websites and books about explaining American idioms to the British. But the provenance of an idiom is usually difficult, and each one needs its own separate research, often answered in specialty articles in print or online (ELU is in spirit an attempt to have a place where that sort of thing can be asked about a specific idiom).

But if you’re given an idiom and asked at gunpoint if it’s more likely to be British or American, there might be some heuristics, but I doubt it.

  • Question (list): How can I tell which of these idioms are American, English or Australian in origin?

There are countless dictionaries of idioms in English in print and online. Sometimes they tell you that the idiom is primarily AmE, BrE, or AusE, or sometimes not. Or the volume will be about American idioms in particular without conceding itself if it is recognized in the UK. You’ll have to check those books.

In the end, for your first three questions, there is no general comparison, but one can certainly find out something about individual idioms.

About individual idioms there is hope though. There are some things you can do online quickly to tell if an idiom is more common in the US or the UK (sadly I can’t find anything online for other varieties of English so you’ll have to pick up a book on Australian idioms if that’s your thing).

One could guess that the more popular an idiom is in a corpus, the more likely its origin is there. But in some sense that doesn't matter because you probably really just want to know if it will be understood there and the relative frequency is exactly that.

But how to determine relative frequency of an idiom? There are the two websites, COCA (a corpus of US English) and BNC (for UK English). You can search your idioms on both and figure the relative frequency in each (they both give absolute frequencies, so they are incomparable, but if you divide by the number of entries, then you can compare. These corpora though separate are well studied and curated so are high quality. They are only written records, not speech.

Another possibility is Google NGrams. There is a search feature that allows you to track a phrase for a given corpus, and they have an American and a British corpus. An example is

appropriation:eng_gb_2012, appropriation:eng_us_2012

For convenience, I have made the links for your specific requests:

Of course, as with any corpus search, you have to beware of a few things. - false negatives - leaving out things you should have searched for (I modified some of your items to be what I think will catch better) for example, I think ‘belly up’ appears much more likely without the hyphen. leo spelling variants (ax or axe?) can mess things up.

  • false positives - catching things you realize you don’t really want. Suppose you just looked for ‘belly up’. It might include also the common idiom ‘belly up to the bar’.

  • OCR - a lot of the text in the Google corpora is scanned and converted to text using optical character recognition. For lots of print (mostly older but still some recent) there are lots of mistakes, so there’s lots of room for capturing or missing unintended things.

  • how things are said - what you think people write is not necessarily how they write. ‘give someone the ax’ is a good template but no one will ever write that. ‘give him the ax’ (probably not ‘give her’ or ‘give them’ because it feels to me like an older expression and only recently would language show the latter.

There are countless other caveats here (not particular to Google NGrams, but show up there more often because of the source text). The best defense against these systematic errors is to look at the actual hits and correct your search accordingly to include or exclude.

  • Note that the OP was radically edited to eliminate the multiple sub-questions. Luckily the original questions were preserved in my answer so you can see the original intent. – Mitch Jun 10 '15 at 13:05
  • Would you agree the edit was harmful? Do you think the edit was necessary, has it improved the post measurably. Where there grammatical errors which impeded comprehension? – Mari-Lou A Jun 13 '15 at 6:05

I don't know if those idioms are usable outside the US.

If in doubt don't use them.

There are some examples that I am not sure about if they are common in UK?

  • go belly-up
  • give someone the ax
  • sharp as a tack
  • top dollar
  • gung ho
  • not give a hoot
  • stand a chance

All these sayings are very, very common in UK and Australia.

  1. How much are British and American idioms similar?

Some are, some aren't.

  1. Is it OK to say an American idiom in a British setting?

I doubt if you said any of the above bullet point idioms anyone would raise an eyelid. Those are all fine.

However, Americans have a reputation around the world so if you think it might be translated incorrectly steer clear of the idiom. This should answer your Q4.

For example you might not want to be a Brit in America saying something like Look at the thongs they're wearing - while this is not an idiom you can see how easily it could be misinterpreted as flip flops.

  1. Are there some characteristics or hints to help to recognize the origin of them? (for example I guess British idioms generally do not contain impolite words)

I think you would have to look into some British slang to gauge/guess the origin: http://www.effingpot.com/slang.shtml

Same with Aussies too: http://www.australianexplorer.com/slang/phrases.htm http://www.australiatravelsearch.com.au/trc/slang.html

  1. I guess British and Australian idioms are almost the same. Aren't they?

No, not necessarily.

For example many in the list pictured below are not common in Australia and would certainly be foreign when used in the USA.

For example it would be easily misunderstood in Australia or America if you said I'll give you a bell if I need a cockup.

enter image description here

  • Sorry, but I had to chop the number of questions, so the post stands a better chance of being reopened. You can leave your answer as is or edit. As you wish. – Mari-Lou A Jun 8 '15 at 22:38
  • If you say "look at the thongs they're wearing" in the U.S. within sight of a number of women in very skimpy bathing suits, I think the chance of your being misunderstood is virtually zero. On the other hand, if an American went into a shoe store in the U.K. and asked for thongs ... – Peter Shor Jun 9 '15 at 16:56

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