TK

When I was a youngster my dad often called me “Alfalfa.” For years I thought it was just some nickname he dreamed up for no reason.

It wasn’t until I was a young teen that I figured out that “timothy” grass was a type of hay or alfalfa farmers often baled.

Everyone grows up hearing and adding slang words, idioms and phrases into their vocabulary, learning their meaning but not really thinking about where the terms came from.

It’s no wonder people from other countries have no idea what most American phrases and slang mean.

The website im-a-puzzle.com, which studies how games and puzzles can be tied to brain training and education, collected the top American phrases that baffle the rest of the world.

They analyzed Google searches, like “monkey business meaning,” from around the world to find out what phrase meanings were most searched for in each country.

Even places that primarily speak English are confounded by our American phrases. The most misunderstood American phrase in the United Kingdom is “cold feet.” Northern Ireland isn’t sure what a “backseat driver” is, and Scotland needs to know what “down the hatch” entails.

Some of the most misunderstood sayings include: over the moon, devil’s advocate, bucket list, pain in the neck, playing with fire, piece of cake, white elephant and couch potato.

We can intuitively guess what many phrases mean. It makes sense that “no pain no gain” means you have to have sore muscles to get in shape or go through some tribulations to find success.

But we often go through life using and listening to phrases, knowing what they mean but not thinking about how they came about.

It’s tough to figure out how “pardon my French” relates to someone apologizing for using profanity.

We all hear “playing devil’s advocate,” but don’t think about why we’d want to advocate for the devil.

We often “shoot the breeze” with someone but don’t really think about how you shoot breeze or what it has to do with chit-chat.

You might be accused of getting up on the wrong side of the bed, even when you got up on the same side you always do.

In fact, even etymologists aren’t exactly sure how some phrases evolved.

Some think “pardon my French” may have come about in the 1800s when the English often used French words but hadn’t mastered the French language, so they would say “pardon my French.” But it’s not clear who or when it started being used to apologize for swearing.

It turns out devil’s advocate, in Latin, is actually an official position in the Catholic Church — an official who “argued against a candidate for sainthood in order to uncover any character flaws that would bar sainthood.”

The idiom shoot the breeze started being used in the early 1900s and the guess is that “breeze” was a slang term for rumor, so empty chatter and gossip was “shooting the breeze.”

The superstitious ancient Romans reportedly always exited their bed on the right side as getting out on the left would bring them into contact with negative forces and leave them in a foul mood all day.

It’s satisfying having a language that can develop thousands of phrases, slang and idioms that we all use but often don’t understand the origin of.

Your “bucket list” might include buying the best “white elephant present” ever, falling “head over heels” in love with someone who is “out of your league” and “painting the town red” with your new love.

It doesn’t matter the origin of the phrases, they’re still fun to use.

Tim Krohn writes for the Mankato, Minn., Free Press, a CNHI newspaper.

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