“YOLO!” “I can’t even…” “Epic!”
For international students, learning a new language like English can be tricky, especially American slang. You may hear dozens of slang terms around your college campus. You might even hear some slang expressions at your internship or job. Our guide to American college slang words in 2020 will help you better understand American slang and to how to use it.
What is slang?
Slang terms are words or phrases that have a cultural definition that is different from the literal definition. For example, when you “keep your cool,” you are not talking about the temperature. You are saying that you will stay calm under pressure.
Slang expressions also change constantly. Some phrases, like “what’s up?”, have been around so long that they have become idioms, or common expressions where the meaning of certain word combinations are really different from their literal meaning. An example of an idiom is “out of the blue” to indicate something that happened without warning.
Other slang words are trendy, or come from current music, TV, or movies, and are only used for a short time. For example, try saying Wazzzup to one of your classmates and see how they respond. (They might laugh, and not in a good way.)
Knowing how and when to use slang terms will help you connect with and better understand American students. As a general rule, you can use slang with your friends and classmates, but should use more formal English when speaking to professors and coworkers. If you use slang in more formal settings, like at work, people might see you as rude or unprofessional.
Guide to American college slang words in 2020
Our list of American slang includes some of the more common slang terms along with their definitions. If you are not sure about whether you should use these slang words, you can check with a friend or research specific slang phrases online using a site like UrbanDictionary to make sure it is OK for the setting.
All the ___ (phrase)
An exaggeration to show strong feelings, usually in a positive way.
Example: “This song gives me all the feels.”
Example: “I’m so amped for tonight’s basketball game!”
An insult that means something or someone is boring or uncool.
Example: “Let’s get out of here. This party is basic.”
Blow off steam (phrase)
Get rid of extra energy, stress, or anger.
Example: “She’ll be OK after she blows off some steam.”
Break a leg (phrase)
A way to wish someone good luck, often before a performance of some kind.
Example: “She’s so nice, she told me to break a leg on stage tonight.”
Short for “brother,” “bro” is used instead of first names among friends, typically men.
Example: “What’s up, bro?”
Relax, calm down, or be easygoing.
Example: “We’re done with exams, so let’s just chill tonight.”
Cray or cray cray (adjective)
Shortened version of crazy – something wild or out of control.
Example: “The new Beyoncé album is cray.”
Curve ball (noun)
Something tricky or unexpected, like trying to hit a curve ball in baseball.
Example: “I wasn’t expecting that assignment to be so hard.” “Yeah, it was a real curve ball.”
To leave a place or person unexpectedly, or to not show up to prior plans.
Example: “I had to ditch study group because my dad called.”
A casual greeting used instead of first names.
Example: “Hey dude, how’s it going?”
Especially awesome, big, strong, or incredible.
Example: “Did you see that movie? So epic.”
Someone who really likes a particular thing. Short for fanatic.
Example: “All the college football fans must be excited for the big game.”
For real (phrase)
To agree with someone, emphasize a statement, or ask if someone is serious.
Example: “This is my favorite class so far!” “For real?”
Get off my back (phrase)
When you want someone to stop bothering or pressuring you about something.
Example: “Get off my back about wearing my pajamas in the dining hall. They’re really comfortable!”
Greek life (noun)
The collection of campus social organizations for male (fraternities) or female (sororities) students. Each fraternity or sorority is named with Greek letters, such as alpha or beta.
Example: “I heard the Greek life on campus is pretty fun.”
Hang out (verb)
Spend time or do something with friends.
Example: “I’m going to hang out with my best friend this weekend.”
Hit the books (verb)
To study. Can also mean to do homework (or assignments meant to be done outside of class).
Example: “The big test is coming up. Time to hit the books.”
I can’t even (phrase)
Expression of being overwhelmed with something, usually in a somewhat joking and positive manner. Short for “I can’t even handle…” or “I can’t even deal…”.
Example: “I can’t even with these French fries. So good!”
I dunno (phrase)
The short form of “I don’t know.”
Example: “Where are my sneakers?” “I dunno.”
I’m down (phrase)
You agree or are interested.
Example: “Want to go to the movies tonight?” “Oh yeah, I’m down.”
K or KK (abbreviation)
Short for “okay.” Pronounced “kay.” A way to agree with something or to confirm what someone asks, without showing too much excitement.
Example: “Want to go to the mall later?” “K.”
Keep your cool (phrase)
Staying calm in a stressful situation.
Example: “I know you’re worried about the test, but you’ll do better work if you keep your cool.”
Something that’s good or worthwhile. Short for legitimate (meaning authentic or real).
Example: “That 65% off sale at the campus store is totally legit.”
Short for magazine.
Example: “Have you read this sports mag?”
A mistake or misunderstanding that causes confusion.
Example: “There was a mix-up and I accidentally grabbed the wrong book for today’s class.”
No worries or no problem (phrase)
A way to answer when someone says thank you. It reassures the person that whatever you did wasn’t difficult.
Example: “Thank you for holding the door.” “No worries.”
Abbreviation for “Oh my god.” Pronounced oh-em-gee. Often used to express surprise, excitement, or disgust.
Example: “OMG, I got an A on my final exam!”
With friends, many US students call their professors “prof” – but calling professors “prof” to their faces is typically considered too informal.
Example: “My economics prof checks our attendance every single day!”
An outdoor gathering space surrounded by buildings, often on a college campus.
Example: “Meet me after class on the quad so we can play soccer.”
Example: “My roomie and I are going to the concert tonight.”
Root for (verb)
To cheer for or support something or someone, such as a sports team.
Example: “I can’t go to the football game this Saturday, but I’ll be rooting for them anyway.”
A picture you take of yourself, either alone or with other people.
Example: “Did you see the cute selfie Emma posted to Instagram?”
Third wheel (phrase)
Someone who is not needed or wanted in a situation, typically with a romantic couple.
Example: “Why is your friend on this date with us? He’s kind of a third wheel.”
Short for “totally” and often used to agree with someone.
Example: “I should finish my reading assignment before we play video games.” “Totes.”
Used to describe something that is ordinary, boring, or uninspiring. Based on vanilla ice cream being seen as a very normal flavor.
Example: “Last week’s class lecture was really exciting, but this one was a little vanilla for me.”
Someone who is shy and tries to remain unnoticed at parties.
Example: “So are you a wallflower, or do you just like hiding behind the couch at parties?”
What’s up? (greeting)
A way to say hello or ask someone what they’re doing.
Example: “Hey, what’s up?” “Not much, just got out of math class.”
A not very serious motivational phrase, short for “you only live once.” Pronounced “yo-low.”
Example: “I know I shouldn’t eat that whole pizza by myself but YOLO.”
Zone out (verb)
To get distracted and not pay attention to what’s happening around you.
Example: “I zoned out during the TV show and missed how it ended.”
How to keep up with American slang
The slang examples above are commonly heard around American college campuses, but keep in mind that different areas of the country may use different slang terms. Sometimes, the same slang word may have slightly different meanings in different places.
Listen to your classmates to understand which slang expressions are appropriate for your area and social group. This can be a conversation starter, too – If you don’t understand something, ask!
If you hear slang terms you don’t know, don’t worry. Even Americans are not aware of all the terms and what they mean. Just use good judgment and you will be able to use American slang effectively, on campus and off.
Learn how Shorelight’s campus transition services help international students adjust to life in the USA >