Working with idioms

You’re in the boardroom. A meeting has been called and the boss looks fairly worried about something. You would offer some advice to the group, but the conversation has suddenly become somewhat complicated. The boss is talking about the business being in the red and at risk of going under. He said they need to get to the bottom of the situation because the whole project cost an arm and a leg. And now he’s asking you to burn the midnight oil on your next shift. Burn the midnight oil? At this point you’re possibly thinking of burning your contract and fleeing the building…

As language learners, we’ve all been in a situation where the words around us can suddenly become very confusing. Even native speakers of English admit that there are some cases where the language seems to be deliberately constructed to baffle and perplex.

Welcome to the world of idioms, where phrases carry meanings altogether unrelated from the individual words. These sentences have grown and formed over a long time and their current definitions require an understanding of metaphor and analogy.

In this article, we’re going to look more closely at some of the common idioms found in the business environment. Because there are so many idioms in English, the list here is only a small sample of some of the most common in use.

It’s all about the money

It makes the world go round, they say. The following phrases will also make your head spin if you stumble on them unprepared:

  • To be in the red: When someone speaks about this, they are talking about suffering a loss of money or that they owe money to the bank.

"Jeremy checked his bank account and discovered he was in the red after the unplanned visit to the casino."

  • To be in the black: An opposite meaning to ‘in the red’, this idiom is used to describe when someone is very much in credit with their bank and no money is owed.

"The next day, Jeremy borrowed enough money from his mother (again) to put his account back in the black."

  • To cost an arm and a leg: This is used to describe something that was very expensive.

"Barbara’s project cost an arm and a leg to operate. She needed to find a sponsor."

  • To cost the earth: This describes something that is very, very expensive.

"Barbara had now realized that renting her business unit in London was going to cost the earth."

  • To break even: A situation where no money is lost, but no money is made either.

"Despite investing in a marketing plan, Jim’s online business only broke even that month."

All work and no play

There are countless idioms that refer to work, usually in the negative sense, where too much of the four-letter word is present. Here is a selection of the phrases that can be used in this case:

  • Snowed under: Nothing to do with the white stuff. This term refers to having more work than you can handle, making you busy and under pressure.

"After the two Englishmen quit their job, the rest of the team were left snowed under by paperwork."

  • Put something on the back burner: If you do this, you make something less of a priority and aim to do it at a later date. Imagine leaving a pot of soup bubbling quietly at the back of the cooker, while you quickly fry up an omelette. You can have the soup later, but you’re craving that omelette right now.

"Jess put her task of signing her divorce papers on the back burner and focused on completing her Tinder account."

  • Burn the midnight oil: If your boss makes a comment about this, he’s noticed you’re working late – or wants you to. It’s a phrase used to describe working long, late hours perhaps beyond the call of duty.

"If Larry had completed all of his company reports on time, he wouldn’t have been burning the midnight oil that Friday."

Worst case scenarios

Even the title here is a phrase; a cliché that talks about the worst possible outcome of a situation. The following phrases might also be found in situations at work when something problematic has occurred.

  • Go under: If a business goes under it means it has failed financially and may soon cease operation.

"After failing to make a profit on “Trump-style hairpieces”, the family’s wig-making company finally went under."

  • Get to the bottom of something: When you need to investigate something and discover the truth of it.

"Jane’s manager wanted to get to the bottom of why there was a bill for Netflix on her department’s budget sheet."

  • Something has hit the fan: Usually used with vulgar slang denoting excrement, if “it” has hit the fan, it generally means that everything has gone wrong and you can expect a lot of problems.

"The Prime Minister left the office quickly and booked a last-minute flight to Panama once he realized the s#@t had hit the fan."

Be prepared!

Why learn idioms? Despite their poetic construction, idioms are an embedded part of everyday speech that are likely to occur in your daily work and social life. Knowing what they mean can prepare you for understanding conversations in more context, or preventing embarrassing situations.

One way to learn idioms is by not taking the wording of them literally (especially where fans are concerned) and try to remember them as whole phrases.

Another way to memorize idioms is to visualize unusual situations where the words have been used literally. Sometimes, the meaning of the idiom can be remembered by setting it in a different time and place. Burning the midnight oil could conjure images of someone madly working through a tower of paperwork by the light of a huge oil lamp, feather quill-pen frantically writing the words in the firelight. Cost an arm and a leg could put you in mind of a terrible sorcerer who would only accept payment in the form of body parts. You’re only limited by your imagination when it comes to memorization!

Finally, try finding any idioms that exist in your first language and compare them with English ones. You may be surprised by how similar (and nonsensical) some of them are!

December 9, 2016
Mi vida antes del Covid- 19 (IMPERFECTO) A-2
Profile Picture
Alejandra Santiago
August 7, 2020
Profile Picture
Abby H
August 7, 2020
The Origins of popular English Idioms
Profile Picture
Jen Mc Monagle
August 7, 2020