English is a highly idiomatic language. For those learning English, idiom use is the hardest part to master; phrases like “fuel to the fire,” “skin of your teeth,” “drop in the ocean,” and “get out of hand” may be common for a native speaker, but true stumbling blocks for someone approaching English as a second language.
The situation is worse for those working in an office. As with any industry, offices have a linguistic shorthand that may be difficult to understand.
While it is unclear where office speak came from, many feel it has its origins in efficiency. In the drive to make more money, efficiency and profitability became emotional drivers, leading to colorful language to describe this new corporate culture. This can reflect the “frat boy” mentality of American business—particularly finance. Or it could reflect economist Milton Friedman’s 1970 thoughts on the shift in business: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”
To help make office speak a little more palatable for those forced to be subject to it, Stacker has collected 50 famous business idioms and sayings. We tried to avoid sayings not in current use, such as “boil the ocean” (to pursue an impossible task), that are industry-specific like “bleeding edge” (an innovation or technology that is so new, it is likely to be unreliable, forcing early adopters to take higher expense in embracing it), or obscure terms like VUCA (short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity).
Keep reading to learn why you do not want to be “right-sized.”
‘Balls to the wall’
“Balls to the wall” sounds dirtier than it really is. It means either that you are working at full capacity and cannot go faster or do more, or that you are in an untenable position and the only way out is full-speed forward. One possible origin of the phrase comes from aviation, where controls are usually topped with balls. To increase throttle, for example, you would push the balls toward the firewall. Another comes from the time of steam engines, where the centrifugal governor, which is typically weighed with flyballs, controlled the speed of the engine. The engine was running at full speed when the flyballs were fully extended or “to the walls.”
A “paradigm shift” is a changing of accepted views over time. It is a physics term that came from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In business, it suggests the changing of official policy or strategy or the changing of the accepted view across an industry—usually toward something unpredicted or unlikely.
To “hard sell” something is to use aggressive tactics to sell the item, including persistent marketing, verbal battering, and illicit product positioning. Hard-selling is considered a desperate move and may ultimately lead to a devaluing of the business.
‘Ahead of the pack’
“Ahead of the pack” refers to being ahead of the competition. This is a reference to a dog pack and the vastly simplified notion of “dog eat dog,” or that there is no true loyalty between dogs. This is actually a misinterpretation. The Latin phrase from which this saying is attributed says that a dog will not eat a dog.
‘Let’s circle back to that’
“Let’s circle back to that” means to postpone something temporarily. Usually, it means that something is worth considering when the timing or circumstances are better or when there are fewer pressing issues to consider. This can also be a polite cue to drop the issue. This is thought to come from wagon trains, where something of interest that is not worth the train stopping is said to be worth “circling back.” Of course, the trains never do circle back.
When something is “data-driven,” it is based on fact and not speculation or emotions. This is a way to justify corporate decisions, particularly difficult ones such as layoffs or the closing of a plant.
“Win-win” is a situation where both parties of a transaction or negotiation get what they want, or at least enough to make them happy. This is an ideal situation, but in reality, one party usually convinces the other party that an offer is fair when this phrase is used. Conversely, “lose-lose” is a situation where no party is happy in a negotiation or everyone loses in a situation.
‘A bit of a visionary’
When someone describes themselves as “a bit of a visionary,” they are self-aggrandizing, suggesting they have some level of insight that their peers do not. Unless the person is Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, they’re only being a narcissist.
When something is “cutthroat,” there is an expected attitude of ultra-aggressiveness, mercilessness, and ruthlessness while in competition. “Cutthroat” is a euphemism for murdering someone violently, although the phrase was first applied to business in the late 19th century to describe business practices that cause consumer protection laws and labor laws.
A “game plan” is a business’ formal or informal strategy for success. This is a (gridiron) football reference that describes how a team plans to respond to a specific opponent.
A “team player” is another sports term. A “team player” is someone that foregoes personal gains or recognition for the sake of the team.
‘Let’s ballpark this’
“Lets ballpark this” is a call to estimate something, such as a situation. This comes from the idea that a home run may be impossible to track from the stands—especially if it is hit into the sun. One may only guess roughly where it went.
‘Thinking outside the box’
Someone who “thinks outside the box” thinks differently from what is expected, suggesting that they are more likely to be innovative. This is akin to “coloring outside the lines.”
“Right-sizing” is a philosophy where a business should be able to scale to meet profit and market expectations. Usually, “right-sizing” is done through layoffs or terminations.
‘Don’t have the bandwidth’
“Not having the bandwidth” is a term borrowed from computing to suggest that a person or team does not have the time or resources to handle additional work. This is the same as saying you do not have the capacity or that you don’t have enough boots on the ground.
Something that is “next-gen” is a product that will feature the next generation of features. This typically applies to mobile devices and computer equipment, where new rollouts regularly are marketed.
‘Rubber hits the road’
“Rubber hits the road” is a reference to cars, in the sense that a car with its tires off the ground will not move. “Rubber hits the road” means the point where one is accountable.
‘By way of housekeeping’
“By way of housekeeping” means that a situation will be taken care of along with all other issues and concerns. The suggestion comes from the notion that good housekeeping means clearing out all the clutter.
‘We need to manage the optics on this’
“We need to manage the optics on this” means that we must consider how a possibly controversial issue will look to the public. The origins of this are more or less straightforward, as optics refers to how we see.
‘That’s the $64,000 question’
The “$64,000 question” is an unanswerable or rhetorical question. “The $64,000 Question” was a game show in the 1950s, where contestants answer progressively more difficult questions in a specific field until they reach the almost-unanswerable $64,000 question.
‘Let’s square the circle’
“Let’s square the circle” means to bring two divergent or opposing views together. Conversely, “you can’t square the circle” means that one cannot do the impossible. This comes from a geometric problem where one is to draw a square with the same area as a given circle, using only a straightedge and a compass.
A “cash cow” is an idea or asset that vastly benefits its company, to where losing it could cripple the company. This comes from having a dairy cow on your farm that produces more milk than it is worth. For example, the iPhone is Apple’s cash cow.
‘We did a SWOT analysis’
“SWOT” stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.” A “SWOT Analysis is how a business can take a deeper look at a market to determine what opportunities are best and worst for the business.
‘It was a perfect storm’
“A perfect storm” is a confluence of disastrous proportions, resulting in a poor or bad state of events. It comes from the book, “The Perfect Storm,” where a fishing boat is hit by a confluence of storms at sea.
‘Stepping up to the plate’
“Stepping up to the plate” is another sports metaphor. Taken from baseball, it means taking the initiative on an issue or situation.
‘Eat your breakfast’
When someone says, “Eat your breakfast,” they are obviously dominating or humiliatingly beating you competitively. This is different from “eating your own dog food,” which means that one is acting in good faith.
‘At the end of the day…’
Sometimes, one can get caught in the minutiae of a plan. “At the end of the day…” is an inference suggesting the basic result or deliverable to be expected.
‘That’s not our core competency’
“That’s not our core competency” suggests that one should stick to doing what they know best. A core competency is a capability or resource that distinguishes a business and is the basis of its strategic advantage.
‘Who got the ‘R’?’
“Who got the ‘R’?” is a call for someone to take the lead on a project or request. The “R” in this case is “responsibility.”
‘Let’s put lipstick on this pig’
Let’s not look too deeply at where the phrase “let’s put lipstick on this pig” came from. It should suffice to say that it means stomaching through a bad situation and making do with what you have.
‘Putting a stake in the ground’
“Putting a stake in the ground” is to make a significant move toward starting a venture or project, or to take leadership of an issue. Conversely, “pulling up the stake” means giving up. This comes from driving a stake in the ground to make a land claim.
‘We’re facing headwinds’
“We’re facing headwinds” is a sailing term. It means that one cannot make any significant progress or one is facing fierce opposition.
See another sailor term: Welcome Aboard and Welcome Abroad
‘Corner the market’
To “corner the market” is to dominate the trade in a particular industry to where one controls the market. “Cornering a market” gives a company a great deal of leeway regarding pricing, competitive positioning, and marketing but may draw complaints of monopolistic behavior.
“A one-off” is an incentive that is not meant to be a recurring part of a deal. This can be a signing bonus or a perk to encourage the closing of a deal.
‘Don’t leave money on the table’
“Don’t leave money on the table” is a gambling term. It means to take as much in a deal or transaction as possible, exceeding what is offered or what is fair. The phrase suggests taking a position of strength, even if that could be read as taking advantage.
‘I don’t think it will move the needle’
“Moving the needle” refers to automotive gauges. It means that an idea or concept is unlikely to make an impact.
A “silo” is a separate, isolated part of a business, such as a department that does not communicate with other departments. A business made of “silos”—a “siloed” business—is one with poor internal communication.
‘The 80/20 rule’
The “80/20 Rule,” or the Pareto Principle, argues that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In business, it means that an exceptional minority is responsible for the vast majority of success.
‘Let’s take a 30,000-foot view’
Taking a 30,000-foot view is taking an all-encompassing look at a situation. It refers to looking at the ground from an airplane in flight.
‘It’s not actionable enough’
An action that is “not actionable enough” is too vague to be implementable. It can also refer to an idea that does not have clear deliverables.
‘We need to manage expectations’
“We need to manage expectations” means that a product or idea may be less impressive than what the public is expecting. This happens with products that were hyped or promoted before they were fully developed.
‘We got too many chiefs and not enough Indians’
An antiquated quote, “we have too many chiefs and not enough Indians” means there are too many managerial types and not enough people doing the work. This can reflect a corporate culture where there is a lack of comprehensive leadership.
‘I know you are burning the candle on both ends’
“I know you are burning the candle on both ends” sounds like a sympathetic comment. “Burning the candle on both ends” means being fully preoccupied with your work. However, if someone says, “I know you are burning the candle on both ends,” they are expecting you to do more.
A “go-to-market strategy” is a business’ plan to achieve market penetration. This is a marketing strategy to determine how to position a product’s life cycle to determine how to maximize profitability.
‘Best of breed’
“Best of breed” is a dog show term. It refers to the best system or product in its niche or market category.
When someone says you should do something “going forward,” you should take it as a warning. It means that what you did previously was problematic and that you should endeavor to meet the recommendation/standard in the future.
‘We need to do a level set’
“We need to do a level set” is the same as “getting everyone on the same page” or “bringing everybody up to speed.” It means ensuring that everyone on a team is aware of the status of the team.
‘We got this covered, from soup to nuts’
If you were paying attention, you would have noticed that we used “deliverable” in previous explanations. A deliverable is an expected result to be delivered at the end of a process. This can result from a project, a work product for a client or customer, or a report.
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Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.