Skip to main content

Main Area


Do you know the meanings behind these 50 business sayings?

  • Do you know the meanings behind these 50 famous business sayings?

    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. The 1994 comic strip “Dilbert” centered on office culture and the seemingly nonsensical use of office lingo. Phrases like “run it up a flagpole,” “boil the ocean,” “streamline,” “pain points,” “bleeding edge,” and “low-hanging fruit” would glass over the eyes of the comic’s characters, to where they made them a game.

    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 is 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.”

    You may also like: 50 fascinating facts about farming in America

  • '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.”

  • 'Paradigm shift'

    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.

  • 'Hard sell'

    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 desperation 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.

  • 'Data-driven'

    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'

    “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 is usually convincing 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.

  • 'Cutthroat'

    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.

  • 'Game plan'

    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.

2018 All rights reserved.