Hi everyone. In this video, I want to introduce some slang terms and idioms which are very common in American English and all of which have their origins in American history. In that sense, it makes these slang terms and idioms quintessentially American. So let’s get started.
The first is buck. Have you heard this one? It means a dollar. A buck is a dollar. A hundred bucks. A thousand bucks. How much did it cost? Oh, it cost me 500 bucks. So that just means dollar.
Now, where does it come from? Well, way back in the 1700s, before the Americans had their own money, there was a lot of trading going on. One of the common items of trade was the skin of a deer or a male deer, a buck. So when you were trading for whiskey or for corn or for some kind of item that you needed, very often people would carry buck skins and they would trade those. Those had value. Eventually, in the late 1700s when the dollar actually came into being, people started calling it a buck and that’s how it came about. Even to this day, we still call dollars, bucks.
Now, there’s another monetary slang term that we use, which is grand. And a grand is one thousand bucks. The word grand means large. Grand canyon, grandfather. It kind of has a big, large, amazing sort of feeling to it. So a thousand dollars, especially back in the early 1900s when people started using the word grand to refer to a thousand dollars, that was a lot of money. Even today it’s a lot of money, but way back then that was really a lot of money.
So a grand, wow, a thousand dollars. A grand. How much was that car? Oh, that car is expensive. It’s 50 grand. How much was your house? Oh, that house. It cost me 200 grand. So that’s what it means. A thousand dollars.
Now, you’ll also hear the term Benjamin. Benjamin means a hundred bucks or a hundred dollars. So 10 Benjamins equals a grand. Now, why did they call them Benjamins? Well, if you look at the face on the front of a $100 bill, you’ll see Benjamin Franklin. And he’s a famous person in American history. Benjamin Franklin. A Benjie is a hundred bucks, so Benjamin. Or sometimes people call them Benjies. Do you have any Benjies in your wallet?
The next one is pass the buck. And in this case, we’re not talking about a dollar. What this means, this idiom if you’ve heard this before, it basically means to shift or to pass the responsibility of making a decision onto another person. To pass the buck.
This actually has its origins in poker - the card game - where the dealer rotated. According to what I’ve read, when this phrase came about, people were using knives that had a handle made from the antler of a male deer, which is a buck. So that was actually the indicator of who was the dealer. They would pass that knife around and whoever that was in front of, that was the dealer. The dealer had the buck and he passed the buck to the next person. So that’s how this phrase came about. Nowadays, it just means to shift responsibility. This could be a very strategic way of not making a mistake if you work for a big organization. And you see this a lot in big bureaucracies. People being either afraid to make a decision or they choose not to make a decision. They pass it on to someone else. That’s called passing the buck.
Interestingly, Harry Truman, one of the presidents of the United States in the 1950s, on his desk, or actually I think it was on his wall in the oval office of the president, he had a sign that said the buck stops here, meaning that there’s nowhere else to pass the buck. I am the person that makes the ultimate decision. You can actually use that phrase if you want to take responsibility for something. I will decide. The buck stops here. I’m the one that will take responsibility for this decision. Whether you like it or not, the buck stops here. So you could use that phrase if you wanted to.
Let’s move on to the next one and that’s John Hancock. Have you heard of this? It’s a man’s name - John Hancock. Basically, a John Hancock is a signature when you sign your name.
That’s your John Hancock. Give me your John Hancock. Put your John Hancock right here above this line. Put your John Hancock there. And that means your signature.
Now, why does it mean that? Well, when the Americans in 1776, when the American Congress created the declaration of independence, which they were going to send to the king of England, declaring their independence from England (we’re talking about the American colonies), It was said that the president or the leader of the congress at that time, his name was John Hancock. And legend has it that he signed his name, he was the first to sign his name and he signed it in a really big, bold, flamboyant way so that the king would easily read his name without even having to wear his spectacles or his glasses. So it was kind of a sign to the king, “I want you to see my name first because we are declaring independence from you.”
So that’s John Hancock. And so now that name John Hancock has become synonymous with a signature.
Okay, next one. Plead the Fifth. I plead the Fifth. Or as you’ll hear some people say, “I’ll take the Fifth on that.” What does that mean? Well, basically, this is a phrase that people use when they don’t want to answer a question. They’re making many questions you might not want to answer. because it will get you in trouble or you don’t want to get involved in that discussion. You can just say, “I plead the Fifth. I take the Fifth.”
Now, where does this come from? Well, this comes from the American Constitution. which is kind of like the rule of law that was written a long time ago in the 1700s. Basically, once that document was created, later on, there were amendments. These were parts that were added to it in the years following its creation in the late 1700s. when America was still a baby as a country. The Fifth amendment, the number five, the Fifth amendment was all about law and especially being accused of a crime. And if you were accused of a crime, you had a right as a citizen to not say anything that might incriminate you, that might lead to your prosecution in a court of law. So you had the right to be silent, basically, if someone asks you a question whose answer would cause you to definitely be a criminal and be prosecuted or put in jail and what not.
Even to this day, Americans still have that right. And that’s why if you get arrested by the police, they say to you, “You have the right to remain silent.” Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. So they’re reminding you of your right to be silent, to not say anything, to not answer any questions. That’s why when we plead the Fifth or take the Fifth, we’re saying to people, “I don’t want to give an answer to that. I’ll plead the Fifth.” So you can use that phrase anytime you don’t want to answer a question.
Next one is shoot the breeze. Yesterday, my friends and I were sitting by the river, drinking a beer and shooting the breeze. And basically that means we’re just doing small talk, chitchat.
Not saying anything important. Just enjoying each others’ company, spending the time talking about this and talking about that. Nothing deep, nothing heavy, nothing important.
We’re just shooting the breeze.
Basically, that has its origins. If you can imagine a couple of guys on a horse way out in the wild west. It’s a boring day, there’s nothing to do. The breeze is blowing and they get so bored, they pull out their guns and they just start shooting into the breeze. When you’re really bored, you have nothing to do, you shoot into the breeze. Shooting your bullets into the air. So that’s what it means - small talk with other people. Shoot the breeze.
Actually, there are quite a few different phrases and idioms that have to do with guns because guns were a big part of the American expansion into the wilderness and finding new land and having to survive in difficult times. So the gun was an important symbol and a tool for a lot of early settlers. We hear this reference to guns in other idioms, phrases, slang terms. For example, ride shotgun. To ride shotgun. And that means to take the seat in the front next to the driver in a car. If you ride shotgun, you’re riding in the passenger side of the front seat. Like when we were in high school, we’d use this phrase a lot whenever we were going to get into a car, the first person that said, “Shotgun!” or, “I’ll take shotgun!” that means that you’ve called the front seat which is the seat that everyone wants to be in because you can see more, you can talk to the driver, etc. That’s riding shotgun.
Now, where does it come from? Well, it comes from the stagecoaches. These vehicles that were pulled by teams of horses over very long distances that would deliver documents, items, kind of like a postal delivery. Or people, it would transport people. Sometimes these stagecoaches were the objects of thieves or bandits who would attack them with guns. So for protection, there would be a man sitting beside the driver, who was holding the reins to the horses and controlling the horses. The guy that sat next to them had a shotgun. Whenever bandits would attack, he would be the one to defend the stagecoach from bandits. And it was said that if there wasn’t someone riding shotgun, if it was just the driver only, that meant that there was nothing important inside the stagecoach. It was probably just passengers only as opposed to important documents or money or jewelry or something like that. So riding shotgun. To this day, you’ll hear people say that quite frequently, actually.
Another one is stick to your guns. “Hey buddy, stick to your guns. You got to stick to your guns.” And what that means is, basically, you got to hold fast to your position, to your opinion on an issue even in the face of intense adversity. If people are attacking you, your idea is you stick to your guns. You stay with what you believe is the right thing, the true thing to do. Especially in an argument, you don’t change your position. You don’t change your mind. You stick to your guns.
And basically, this comes from gunners - people who had posts whether it was in the military or whether it was someone who was standing watch in the middle of the night. You had a post and you had to protect that with a gun. If people were shooting at you, you had to stick to that post, stick to your guns and defend. You can’t just run away. That would not be the honorable thing to do. So to stick to your guns means to remain by your post, remain to your ideas. Stay true to what you believe. Stick to your guns. In difficult situations, you should stick to your guns.
Okay, we got a few more left. One is the smoking gun. Maybe you’ve heard this one before and you can probably imagine the meaning. A smoking gun is a gun literally that smoke is coming out of the end of it, which means it had recently, very recently been fired. A smoking gun is basically the evidence which proves that a crime was indeed committed. So the smoking gun. That’s the evidence that something bad has happened. A crime has been committed. It’s the piece of evidence that exposes who the true criminal was and that definitely a crime had taken place. The smoking gun. All solid cases in a court of law have a smoking gun. What is the smoking gun? Is it a person? Is it an item? Is it a splattering of blood? What is it? Is it some DNA left at the crime scene? What is the smoking gun? All right.
Finally, last one. Bought the farm. This is a really difficult one to guess if you hear this in conversation. He bought the farm. She bought the farm. To buy the farm. What does that mean? Well, if you heard that, you might think it means move out into the countryside and leave the city behind. But that’s not what it means. It very simply means to die. He bought the farm. He died, especially suddenly.
Basically, where this comes from, actually it comes from a more recent incident in American’s past which is World War II. Whenever planes were flying over Europe like France or whatever, if they were shot down or if they had mechanical trouble and they crashed into, very often, farmland that someone owned, that farmer could sue the government to get the money. And very often, the payment would be enough to actually pay off the mortgage or the loan on that farm. So when pilots would crash land and die, their death actually would lead to the paying off of that piece of farmland. And that farm was bought with this person’s life. So it’s very interesting. To buy the farm means that you died.
You bought the farm. He bought the farm. She bought the farm. So don’t buy the farm. Not anytime soon.
Okay, that’s all for this segment. I hope you found some of those useful and interesting.
Remember, all of these are very common. They just have historical origins but they’re used in everyday conversation. Any of those you can use and it’ll make your English a little bit more interesting. Okay, enjoy those.