You’ve learned your English vocabulary, brushed up on your grammar, and practiced your American accent. But if you want to really sound like an American, you’ve got to learn the most popular slang that Americans constantly use in their day-to-day speech.
This can be quite a daunting task for a non-native speaker — after all, there seems to be completely different words and expressions in each US city. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. This article will break down some of the most fun (and most useful!) regional American slang words, from coast to coast. In no time, you’ll be busting out slang just like a native speaker!
Slang From the East Coast
The United States’ historic East Coast contains many major metropolitan hubs, such as New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C., the United States’ capital city.
- Mad – In New York, mad is an intensifier, which is used as an adverb, much like “very” or “extremely”. For example, one could say that English grammar is mad difficult.
- Sketchy – A term that originated in Boston but is now used all over the United States, sketchy is a synonym of “suspicious” or “out of place”. It can be used to describe a person or an event. For example, if someone rings your doorbell at midnight, that’s a sketchy situation. And the guy who rang your doorbell is a sketchy person.
- Chiefin’ – This word comes from the United States’ capitol, Washington D.C., and means to steal or to not share. Imagine that you’re getting together with your friends, and everyone brings something to eat or drink — except you. Your friends might say that you’re chiefin’ their stuff.
Slang From the Midwest
The Midwest, commonly referred to as “America’s Heartland”, is filled with grassy pastures, farmlands, and exceptionally cold winters.
- Swag – The word swag actually dates back to the 1500s, when it meant “to move unsteadily”. It was brought back in the 1990s by rappers in Chicago, who used it to describe a confident, stylish attitude. If your friend tells you that you’ve got swag, it’s a compliment.
- Balla (BAW-luh) – Detroit, Michigan is one of the most economically depressed cities in the United States. Ironically, it’s also the birthplace of the term balla, which describes somebody who is very wealthy and has a tendency to flaunt that wealth. For instance, if you see somebody wearing a diamond chain and driving a Mercedes, you could describe him as a balla.
- You betcha! – In Minnesota, people constantly use this quaint expression to express emphatic agreement. If someone from Minnesota asks you, “Do you want to improve your English?”, you could respond by saying “You betcha!”
Slang From the South
From Disney World to Texan ranches, America’s South is full of character and personality. Southerners enjoy warm winters and a slower pace of life.
- Dale (DAH-lay) – Native Spanish speakers who are learning English will surely recognize the interjection dale, which means “okay” or “go ahead”. Popularized by rappers and singers like Pitbull, this Spanish word has become a normal part of the English lexicon in Miami.
- Break Bad – Those who watch Breaking Bad should know that to break bad means to partake in illegal activity, generally for the first time. However, the slang has actually been around in New Mexico for years before the popular TV series made it famous worldwide.
- Y’all – English lacks an official second-person plural pronoun: “you” refers to both an individual and a group of people. In Texas (and other states in the South), however, there is an unofficial second-person plural pronoun: y’all. You use y’all to address a group of people. Before going out with your friends, you might ask, “Are y’all ready?”
Slang From the Pacific Southwest/West Coast
“West Coast, Best Coast” — it’s what proud residents of Washington, Oregon, and California say about their homes along the Pacific Ocean.
- Whale – Las Vegas is known as “Sin City”, and for good reason — it’s full of nightclubs, bars, extravagant shows, and casinos. In Las Vegas, a whale refers to somebody who is going to spend a lot of money at the casino.
- Filthy – Though you might know filthy to mean dirty and gross, in Seattle, it actually means the opposite: something that’s filthy is awesome or very cool. “That’s filthy!” you might say to a friend who just got a promotion at work.
- Fo’ shizzle (foe-SHIH-zul)- Those familiar with Snoop Dogg’s music will recognize fo’ shizzle, which is characteristic of Snoop Dogg’s manner of speaking. This common west-coast slang expresses affirmation: it’s a synonym of “definitely” or “for sure”.
Now you’ve learned twelve of the key slang words and expressions of the United States. At this point, you might be asking yourself, “The United States is a mad big place. Isn’t there more slang?” You betcha! For hundreds more filthy American slang words and phrases from all across the country, check out this map. Study your slang, and you’ll be well on your way to perfecting your American English!
What’s your favorite slang word on this list? Do you have any other American slang favorites? Leave your comment below!
Paul writes for Listen & Learn, which provides individually-tailored language training on a one-on-one or small group basis worldwide. On their website, you’ll also find many free language-learning resources. Don’t hesitate to email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Listen & Learn’s Facebook page for more information.