The Wall Street Journal ran a great article on learning American slang in yesterday's newspaper. You can read it online here.
The article interviewed American idioms and slang expert, Amy Gillett, author of the Speak English Like an American series. Here is Amy's full list of the trickiest slang for non-native speakers to learn and her commentary on what makes this slang tricky? Have tricky slang of your own to suggest? Post it as a comment!
The top five most dangerous/hard-to-use/confusing slang words for English language learners:
What’s up? / Whassup? / Sup? – When this gets stripped down to its shortest form (‘Sup?) it can be hard to understand. It’s also hard for non-native speakers to know how to answer. They need to learn the acceptable replies (not much, nothing much) instead of replying “fine,” “good,” or “okay.”
Shut up! – this term can be tricky to use and to understand because it’s meaning depends on intonation. If you say it as a standard command without a smile, it is clearly rude. If you say it with a smile and rising intonation, it could mean “I don’t believe you” or “Really? Tell me more.” Or if you stress the “shut” and stretch it out, it could mean, “No way!” or “That’s hard to believe!” Confusing? You betcha!
hook up – this term can mean anything from making out to having sex. Non-native speakers are always heartened to learn that native speakers don’t really know what it means either. Non-native speakers need to be careful not to include it in any kind of romantic overture. Invitations to native speakers along the lines of “Hey, Ashley, want to hook up?” are to be avoided.
the “f” word – this word is tempting for many non-native speakers to sprinkle into their sentences for emphasis, just like many native speakers do. But non-native speakers sometimes overuse it out of enthusiasm or use the wrong article in front of it, as in: “What a f____!” instead of “What the f____!” Non-native speakers are also more likely to put it in writing, not fully appreciating its shock value.
lego – this term, popular on college campuses, is confusing for non-native speakers hearing it for the first time. No, we’re not talking about plastic interlocking toys. It’s slang for “let’s go” and was popularized by rappers.