American English Business Idioms
For better or worse, the American workplace is full of idioms. People don’t begin a project. They “get a project off the ground.” They don’t call each other to discuss progress – they “touch base.” Later, if the project is not going well, they don’t end it. They “pull the plug.” Here are some idioms you're likely to encounter in the workplace. They're taken from the book, Speak Business English Like an American, which contains over 350 business-related idioms and expressions. After getting to know the idioms, listen for them in everyday conversations and look out for them in newspapers and magazines.
at a premium
at a high price; at a relatively high price
Example: When flat-screen televisions first came out, they were selling at a premium.
quick calculations; estimates using approximate numbers, instead of exact numbers
Example: I don't need the exact numbers right now. Just give me some back-of-the-envelope calculations.
Note: This expression refers to the quick calculations one would do informally, as on the back of an envelope.
reduction of expenses
Example: When worldwide demand for software decreased, Microsoft had to do some belt-tightening.
(to) bite the bullet
to make a difficult or painful decision; to take a difficult step
Example: When demand was down, U.S. automakers had to bite the bullet and cut jobs.
Origin: This idiom comes from the military. During the Civil War in the United States, doctors sometimes ran out of whiskey for killing the pain. A bullet would be put in the wounded soldier's mouth during surgery. He would "bite the bullet" to distract him from the pain and keep him quiet so the doctor could do his work in peace.
bitter pill to swallow
bad news; something unpleasant to accept
Example: After Gina spent her whole summer working as an intern for American Express, failing to get a full-time job offer from the company was a bitter pill to swallow.
a big success; a huge hit
Example: Eli Lilly made a lot of money with the prescription drug, Prozac. It was a real blockbuster.
Origin: This term comes from the blockbuster bombs used during World War Two by the British Royal Air Force. They were huge and created a large explosive force. Blockbuster ideas similarly create a big impact - and hopefully don't cause destruction like blockbuster bombs!
credit for doing a good deed or for giving someone a compliment (usually a boss or teacher)
Example: Sara scored brownie points with her boss by volunteering to organize the company's holiday party.
Origin: The junior branch of the Girl Scouts is called the Brownies. Brownies earn credit to then earn a badge by doing good deeds and tasks. When applied to adults, the meaning is sarcastic.
a product, service, or business division that generates a lot of cash for the company, without requiring much investment
Example: With strong sales every year and a great brand name, Mercedes is a cash cow for DaimlerChrysler.
(to) cash in on
to make money on; to benefit financially from
Example: Jamie Oliver, star of the TV show The Naked Chef, cashed in on his popularity by writing cookbooks and opening restaurants.
(to) climb the corporate ladder
advance in one's career; the process of getting promoted and making it to senior management
Example: You want to climb the corporate ladder? It helps to be productive and to look good in front of your boss.
(to) compare apples to oranges
to compare two unlike things; to make an invalid comparison
Example: Comparing a night at EconoLodge with a night at the Four Seasons is like comparing apples to oranges. One is a budget motel, and the other is a luxury hotel.
Note: You will also see the related expression "compare apples to apples" which means to compare two things of the same type. This means that you are making a valid comparison, as opposed to when you're comparing apples to oranges.
a short period when there's high pressure to achieve a result
Example: It's crunch time for stem cell researchers in Korea. New government regulations may soon make their work illegal.
a cruel and aggressive world in which people just look out for themselves
Example: Your company fired you shortly after you had a heart attack? Well, it's certainly a dog-eat-dog world!
Origin: This expression dates back to the 1500's. Wild dogs were observed fighting aggressively over a piece of food. The connection was made that people, like dogs, often compete aggressively to get what they want.
(to) dot your i's and cross your t's
to be very careful; to pay attention to details
Example: When preparing financial statements, accuracy is very important. Be sure to dot your i's and cross your t's.
(to) drum up business
to create business; to find new customers
Example: Sales have been very slow lately. Do you have any ideas for drumming up business?
(to) face the music
to admit that there's a problem; to deal with an unpleasant situation realistically
Example: Enron executives finally had to face the music and admit that they were involved in some illegal activities.
(to) fast track a project
to make a project a high priority; to speed up the time frame of a project
Example: Let's fast track this project. We've heard rumors that our competitors are developing similar products.
(to) generate lots of buzz
to cause many people to start talking about a product or service, usually in a positive way that increases sales
Example: Procter & Gamble generated lots of buzz for its new toothpaste by giving away free samples to people on the streets of New York City.
Note: "Buzz" is a popular word for "attention."
(to) have a lot on one's plate
to have a lot to do; to have too much to do; to have too much to cope with
Example: Carlos turned down the project, explaining that he already had a lot on his plate.
Note: There is also the variation: to have too much on one's plate.
(the) hard sell
an aggressive way of selling
Example: Car salesmen are famous for using the hard sell on their customers.
Note: The opposite of "the hard sell" is "the soft sell," which is a sales technique using little or no pressure.
(to) jump the gun
to start doing something too soon or ahead of everybody else
Example: The company jumped the gun by releasing a new product before the results of the consumer testing were in.
Origin: A runner "jumps the gun" if he or she starts running before the starter's pistol has been fired.
(to) jump through hoops
to go through a lot of difficult work for something; to face many bureaucratic obstacles
Example: We had to jump through hoops to get our visas to Russia, but we finally got them.
(to) keep one's eye on the prize
to stay focused on the end result; to not let small problems get in the way of good results
Example: I know it's difficult going to class after work, but just keep your eye on the prize. At the end of next year, you'll have your MBA.
Note: You will also see the variation: keep one's eyes on the prize.
(to) keep something under wraps
to keep something secret; to not let anybody know about a new project or plan
Example: I'm sorry I can't tell you anything about the project I'm working on. My boss told me to keep it under wraps.
Note: "Wraps" are things that provide cover, so if something is "under wraps" it's covered up and hidden.
mum's the word
let's keep quiet about this; I agree not to tell anyone about this
Example: Please don't tell anybody about our new project. Remember: mum's the word!
Origin: The word "mum" comes from the murmur "mmmmm," the only sound you can make when your mouth is shut firmly. Try making other sounds besides "mmmmm" with your lips and mouth shut firmly, and you will see that it's impossible!
my gut tells me
I have a strong feeling that; my intuition tells me
Example: It's true that I don't know him well, but my gut tells me that James is the right person for the sales director position.
Note: The "gut" is both the intestines and stomach and also the innermost emotional response.
nothing ventured, nothing gained
If you don't try to do something, you'll never succeed.
Example: It's risky to spend so much money developing a new brand, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
on top of trends
modern; aware and responding to the latest tastes
Example: The Gap is on top of trends. They always have the latest styles in their stores.
(to) pass the buck
to shift the blame; to blame somebody else
Example: It's your fault. Don't try to pass the buck!
Origin: This expression comes from the world of poker. In the nineteenth century, a knife with a buckhorn handle (the "buck") was passed to the next dealer when it was his turn to give out the cards.
(to) plug (a product)
to promote a product; to talk positively about a product
Example: American Express often hires famous people to plug their credit cards. No wonder people pay attention to their ads!
(to) pull one's weight
to do one's share of the work
Example: Don't rely on others to get your job done. You need to pull your own weight.
Note: You will also hear the variation: to pull one's own weight.
(to) pull the plug
to put a stop to a project or initiative, usually because it's not going well; to stop something from moving forward; to discontinue
Example: After losing millions of dollars drilling for oil in Nebraska and finding nothing, the oil company finally pulled the plug on its exploration project.
Origin: This expression refers to removing a plug to make something stop working - when you pull the plug out of the wall, your appliance doesn't work. In the 19th century, when this term originated, the plug was for a toilet. To flush the toilet, you had to pull out a plug.
(to) put a stake in the ground
to take the first step; to make a big move to get something started; to make a commitment
Example: Our business in California has grown steadily over the past two years. Now is the time to put a stake in the ground and open a regional office there.
(to) rally the troops
to motivate others; to get other people excited about doing something; to do something to improve the morale of the employees and get them energized about doing their work
Example: After the lay-offs and salary cuts, the airline president organized a meeting to
rally the troops and plan for the next year.
Note: The verb "to rally" has several definitions, but in this case means to "call together for a common goal or purpose." Troops is an informal way of describing a group of employees. The term comes from the military - a troop is a military unit.
let's think realistically about this situation (said when you don't like something that's being suggested because you don't think the other person is thinking practically or logically)
Example: You think we can start selling our products through our website next month? Time for a reality check! Nobody at our company knows anything about e-commerce.
(to) scale back one's hours
to reduce the number of hours one works
Example: When Christine had a baby, she decided to scale back her hours and just work part-time.
Synonym: to cut back one's hours
Shape up or ship out!
improve your behavior or leave; if you don't improve your performance, you're going to get fired
Example: Martin finally had enough of Todd's negative attitude. "Shape up or ship out!" he told Todd.
Origin: This expression was first used in the U.S. military during World War Two, meaning: you'd better follow regulations and behave yourself ("shape up"), or you're going to be sent overseas to a war zone ("ship out").
(to) step up to the plate
to take action; to do one's best; to volunteer
Example: We need somebody to be in charge of organizing the company holiday party. Who'd like to step up to the plate and start working on this project?
Note: This expression comes from baseball. You step up to the plate (a plastic mat on the ground) when it's your turn to hit the ball.
(to) throw cold water over (an idea, a plan)
to present reasons why something will not work; to discourage
Example: Pat presented her boss with a plan to expand their business into China, but he threw cold water over her plan and told her to just focus on developing business in the United States.
Note: You will also hear the variation: to throw cold water on.
though the roof
very high; higher than expected
Example: No wonder people are complaining about the cost of heating their homes. Oil prices have gone through the roof!
(to) turn around one's business
to make a business profitable again; to go from not making profits to being profitable again
Example: The telecom company was able to turn around its business by developing a popular new line of services.
(to) work down to the wire
to work until the last minute; to work until just before the deadline
Example: The investment bankers need to turn in their report at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, and they've still got many hours of work left on it. They're going to be working down to the wire.
Note: This expression comes from horse racing. In the 19th century, American racetracks placed wire across the track above the finish line. The wire helped determine which horse's nose crossed the line first. If a race was "down to the wire," it was a very close race, undecided until the very last second.
(to) work out the (or some) kinks
to solve the problems with
Example: The company announced that they will delay the launch of their new product by two weeks. They still need to work out the kinks with their packaging process.
Note: A "kink" is a problem or flaw in a system or plan.
an employee who always agrees with the boss or does whatever the boss says
Example: Don't expect Larry to argue with the boss. He's a yes man.