Working in the economic sector can present a world of strange language and phrases that often leave you wondering if you actually understood what was said to you and if it was in the same English language that we all know and love. And that’s for people who have English as their first language!
For people who don’t have English as their first language it can be a dangerous, turbulent sea of hidden meanings and confusing language usage. Let this article be your life boat of understanding that will lead you through the rough waters of idioms and phrases to shores of safety where you will be able to confidently understand, use and converse in this complex language of business.
Firstly, ‘what is an idiom?’ you might ask. An idiom is usually a group of words or phrase that has a different meaning to its literal meaning. For example, if someone at work said to you:
“Man, that was a tough break. I hope you’re okay.”
You may be left wondering when, where and how you broke something and why you weren’t informed of this critical event but that’s beside the point. This person obviously has some serious misinformation about you!
In this case ‘a tough break’ doesn’t mean you’ve actually broken anything, it means that something unfortunate has happened to you and your colleague is offering his sympathy. Learning idioms can not only be crucial to gaining a better understanding of your world at work but also the rest of your English world. People don’t use idioms to confuse you, they just aren’t aware you may not understand them!
Okay, so now that’s covered let’s take a look at some common idioms that you will likely hear in the workplace and their meanings:
| Idiom | Meaning | Example Sentence |
| :---------- | :---------- | :---------- |
| 24/7 | Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. | “I’m never at home, I work 24/7!”
| At stake | Something is at risk. | “There’s a lot at stake here, we need to be careful about how we proceed.” |
| Backroom deal | A decision made without people, usually the public knowing about it. | “I think they acquired the new premises because of a backroom deal” |
| Ball park figure | A random, not specific estimate.| “If I had to give you a ball park figure I’d say $20,500.” |
| By the book | To do things 100% to the laws or rules stated. | “Tim always does thing by the book.” |
| Come up short | To fail after trying to achieve or be successful at something. | “I tried to finish the project in time but I came up short.” |
| Fifty-fifty | To divide something equally. | “They decided to divide the shares with the investor fifty-fifty.” |
| Game plan | A strategy or plan. | “Okay, for us to be productive first we need a game plan” |
| In the black/red | The company is making profit/the company is not profitable and losing money. | “I’ve heard that Greenpeace is in the black because of their campaign against McDonalds.” / “I’ve heard that McDonalds is in the red because of the Greenpeace campaign against them.” |
| Long Shot | A very low likelihood of something happening. | “We could give that a go but I think it’s a bit of a long shot to be honest.” |
| Loophole | There’s a way to get around a law because of it having unclear information. People or corporations can use this to their advantage, usually to save money. | “They found a loophole in the law and now they don’t have to pay tax!” |
| Nine to five | The time period 9am to 5pm. | “I always work nine to five which means get to watch the sunset in the park.” |
| Pink slip | Someone has been fired. | “Did you hear!? Jimmy’s been given the pink slip because he broke the rules!” |
| Red tape | An excess of rules and/or regulations. | “I wouldn’t even bother working there, there’s so much red tape it’s ridiculous.” |
| Round-the-clock | All day, 24/7. | “Our stock software operates round-the-clock without fail.” |
| Same boat | People that are in the same situation. | “Well, if the company goes down we’ll all be in the same boat won’t we?” |
| See something through | To do something until it has been completed. | “If you accept this project you need to see it through, I don’t want anything left unfinished.” |
| Take the bull by the horns | To directly confront a difficult/challenging situation. | “I think what you need to do is take the bull by the horns on this one or the problem won’t go away.” |
| Think big | To have high goals and big plans for the future. | “You need to think big if you want to get anywhere in this world. To think big is to have the courage to succeed.” |
| Yes man | Someone who always agrees with his or her supervisors. | “I like John because he’s a yes man. He always knows what to say.” |
These examples are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’; there are countless others, as well as the fact that many people like to make up their own idioms. Now we’ll look at a short piece of text about a scenario at work that includes some of the idioms we’ve learnt and a few new ones to test you:
"Jane was at work, walking to the copier, feeling very stressed. At the copier she told John that she was worried about her job because of her tough break with the Hamilton deal. He told her that they were all in the same boat as many of the deals had fallen through. He said that the boss didn’t think they were team players and didn’t ‘think big’. This news made her feel even worse and she didn’t know what to do. She already worked 24/7, put in 110% and was a top performer. Just because of one bad deal she would probably get the pink slip. Then she suddenly had a brain wave: She remembered that she knew about the company's back room deals and under the table goings-on. If she was clever, she could use this as leverage to keep her job, but it wouldn’t be easy. She’d need to take the bull by the horns on this one and see it through to the end. The walk back to her desk was far less stressful."
Learning idioms can be confusing to begin with, but once you understand to look for the abstract meaning of the phrases, a whole new chapter in your language learning will open up to you. If you see or hear a phrase with a literal meaning that doesn’t relate to the context of the conversation or text in which it’s being used, then it will most likely be an idiom.
So get creative and use that wonderful brain of yours to solve the puzzle of its meaning. It takes a certain way of thinking to understand the meanings of idioms, as it surely does in your own language. Maybe compare English idioms to those in your own language to see if any similarities occur.
When talking to people, if you don’t understand what they are saying, don’t be scared to ask them to stop and explain the meaning to you. If you don’t, they will automatically assume you understand everything they say. Maybe write down idioms that you read or hear in a small notebook or on your phone for you to research later.
With idioms, it really is a case of thinking outside the box. Like learning to ride a bike, once you learn you will never forget!