Whether we like it or not, the English speaking workplace is overflowing with idioms. Are you trying to “climb the corporate ladder”? Is the “rat race” making you crazy? If your project is in trouble, who will “bail you out”? Will you “pass the buck” if your project fails?Confused? You’re not alone. Read on about the meanings and origins of some of the most common business idioms.
Climb the corporate ladder – to move up in the hierarchy of a corporation.
Rat race – the fierce struggle for success in the world of business.
Bail someone out – to rescue someone from trouble or difficulty.
Pass the Buck – to blame someone or make them responsible for something you should deal with yourself.
Now let’s look at some more idioms that you can use in business settings!
Bite the bullet
-to make yourself do or accept something that is difficult or unpleasant.
Example: When the economy began to worsen, many executives bit the bullet and took a pay cut
History: This idiom dates back to earlier periods in the military when patients on the battlefield would have to bite down on a bullet to distract them from a painful surgery with no anesthetic.
-recognition or praise for doing something good or for giving a compliment to someone in authority (such as your boss)
Example: Martha scored brownie points with her team leader when she offered to stay late and finish the project.
History: The Brownies are the youngest members of the Girl Scouts organization, in which girls do good deeds to earn badges (for example, helping the elderly). This phrase is sometimes used negatively to describe a suck-up.
How do you deal with coworkers who focus more on scoring brownie points than on the actual quality or amount of their work?
Can you give an example of a time when you had to bite the bullet at work? What was the outcome?
Have you ever had to bail a coworker or superior out? What had he/she done, and what did you do to save him/her?
Jump the gun
-to begin to do something before you should (for example, before you have all of the information required to make a good decision or take the correct action)
Example: Mark really jumped the gun when he accused Larry of stealing his marketing ideas! It turns out that Larry proposed that advertising campaign over a month ago.
History: In a track and field race, a small gun – called a “starter’s pistol” – is fired to tell the runners when to begin. If a runner leaves the starting line before the gun is fired, he has “jumped the gun.”
Pull the plug
-to stop an activity or project, especially if it is prohibited or if it is not succeeding
Example: When the boss found out that the project was $40 million over budget, he pulled the plug and fired the project manager.
History: This expression is believed to refer to one of two different actions. First, if the plug for an electrical appliance is removed from the wall, the appliance will no longer work (it stops). Secondly, in the 19th century, some of the first toilets in use had a plug. This plug was removed to flush the toilet.
Down to the wire
-until the very last moment that it is possible to do something (note: the phrase “the 11th hour” is very similar – it means “the last minute”)
Example: Our end of the year report is due at 4:00 pm today. I was out sick all week with the flu, so now I’m really going to have to work down to the wire.
History: This term comes from the sport of equestrian racing. In the 19th century, a wire above the finish line was used to decide who the winner of a close race was. If two horses were very close together at the end of the race, it was said to be “down to the wire” (the one who touched it first was the winner).
If you see a business situation deteriorating quickly, do you think it’s a better idea to pull the plug on the project yourself or pass the buck to someone else? Why?
Give an example of a time when a well known company jumped the gun.
Do you prefer to finish things early or do you normally work down to the wire?
Compare apples to oranges
-to compare two things that are not similar, making the comparison worthless
Example: You can’t compare Japan’s economy to the economy of the U.S. It’s like comparing apples to oranges!
Note: If you wanted to compare two things that are very similar, you would say “compare apples to apples.”
For example: For today’s meeting, I think it’s important to compare apples to apples. We should compare this month’s sales figures to the sales figures from the same month last year.
-someone who always agrees with everything that an authority figure (such as a boss, teacher, parent, etc.) proposes
Example: Bob is such a yes man; there’s no way he’ll ever disagree with his manager.
Note: As you can imagine, the term “yes man” comes from the fact that some people will always say “yes” to their bosses, teachers, etc. in order to be well liked by those people.
Larry will never tell his boss how he really feels about this project. He’s just a __________________.
I told Mary to cancel Saturday’s party because I had a business meeting scheduled, but I ____________________ because the day after I talked to her, the meeting was cancelled.
The proposal is due in three hours! You’re really working ________________________, aren’t you?
I guess Jenny’s not going to make it into work today. Looks like I’ll have to _______________ and do the presentation for her, even though I don’t know much about it.
There’s not enough money for the project, so the boss is _________________________________.
Do you know anymore useful business idioms? Why not leave an example in the comments box.
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