Get your business jargon and slang down to a TTTTTT…

You may know what most of these terms mean, but their origins are often very surprising. Here is the penultimate in this series, all starting with the popular letter “T…”

One in a series of articles on business jargon and slang

Does a “thought shower” allow you to “talk turkey” and “toe the line” about “the blue economy?”

Take pot luck: (or take potluck) is usually thought to be related to the US meaning, dating back to the late 19th century, where a large meal consists of individual edible contributions from all the guests. However the term goes back farther in time, to Britain in the 16th century, when to take pot luck meant to take your chances on what you get. Interestingly, both meanings of the term are still in use.

Take something with a grain/pinch of salt: to accept something for what it appears to be, but with some reservations as to its accuracy! This term comes from the days when much food was rather tasteless and in many cases might have been poisoned. The idea was that if you were to take such food with a “grain of salt,” or a “pinch of salt,” it made it easier to swallow. The first known reference to this goes back nearly two thousand years when Pliny wrote about it (“grain of salt”) in Naturalis Historia, back in 77 A.D. The term (also as “grain of salt”) was popular in England from the 16th century in examples like John Trapp’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, in 1647, and F. R. Cowell (“pinch of salt”) in Cicero & the Roman Republic, in 1948. The amount of salt concerned with a “pinch” is obvious, and a “grain” is roughly .065 of a modern day gram.

Takeaway: especially if you live in England, the term “takeaway” is synonymous with fast food that you buy over the counter and “take away,” i.e. take home or elsewhere to eat. In Scotland such a meal is more usually described as a “carry out” and in many parts of North America as a “take out.” Other English language countries tend to use one of those, or variants thereof. In business, however, although you can see the connection with the fast food interpretation, the term “takeaway” is used more commonly across many English language markets and means pretty well what it says: it’s the information, learning, new ideas, etc. that you “take away” from any kind of information or training input. E.g., “the main takeaway from Friday’s meeting was how the new incentive scheme will impact us individually.”

Talk to the hand: a term of vague origins but thought to come from the west coast of the USA in the very late 20th century, when someone who really does not want to hear what you have to say raises the palm of one hand at you and says, “talk to the hand.” Essentially it’s a fairly brutal way of dismissing you, and is considered very rude.

Talk turkey: not surprisingly, a term that comes from early US origins and is said to have come from conversations between First Nation people and foreign incomers way back when. The term was first discussed openly in the USA during 19th century. We should assume, perhaps, that “talking turkey” was all about discussing really important issues at that time. It’s worth considering that turkey (wild), in North American early days, represented an important source of food: and, perhaps, an important bargaining point. Consequently today, it means to get down to the important issues, perhaps bypassing peripheral stuff and just getting to the point.

Teetotaller: many of us – especially those of us “‘spellingly’ challenged” – might ascribe this word to people who only drink tea! But that difference in spelling is a warning here. In fact, the “tee” here is much more likely to have come from “temperance” activists in the 19th century in Britain and North America, and be entirely connected with the word “temperance” which, of course, means “abstinence from alcoholic drink.” (Never mind just tea..)

Tear apart: an unfortunate contemporary English language term that, literally, can mean to utterly destroy, and often is used to describe destruction of ideas, concepts, projects, and much more. The verb “tear,” in a business context means to disrupt, divide or separate. Not a term any business or other organization wants to deal with.

The blue economy: a movement started by Belgian Gunter Pauli, inspired by the relatively self-sufficient ecosystems of the oceans, whereby a healthy economy can be run by using and recycling the resources that are already in place. Pauli’s book, “The Blue Economy: 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs,” was first published in 2010.

The proof of the pudding: (sometimes “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”) this metaphor means that to find out if something is going to work or not, you need to try it for yourself. The word “proof” here is used in its old-fashioned sense, with a meaning closer to the word “test.” The term is said to go back to the early 14th century in English literature, but doubt has been cast on it being that early: today it’s thought to have first been used in the early 17th century. Even then, though, puddings were not the sweet dessert as we know them today. More likely they would have been savory meat and other foods packed into an animal’s skin or stomach, rather like a sausage or even a haggis.

Think outside the box: a mid-20th century term which has become one of the business world’s favorite clichés. It means to think freely without feeling restrained by convention, rules, or any other inhibiting factors. Origin unknown, but likely to have come from USA business jargon.

Thought shower: another piece of business jargon originating from the USA, and one which – like “think outside the box” – has become a well-worn cliché. It means a meeting where people freely contribute ideas to a central project, concept or idea, spurring each other on to think creatively (or, indeed, “outside the box!”) This term evolved in the early 21st century from the word “brainstorm,” which, though it meant the same thing in business, turned out to be potentially offensive to people who suffer from epilepsy. That was because the word “brainstorm” also refers to medical condition connected with epilepsy, so its use as a business term has been largely eradicated.

Ticked off: this term has at least three meanings depending on where you live. The first is from the military in the UK in the early 20th century, when to “tick someone off” meant to reprimand them. The next is from the USA about half a century later, when it came to mean being annoyed, e.g. “I was really ticked off by her attitude in the board meeting.” Finally it can also mean to tick or check items off on a list.

Tinker with: this word has its origins in Middle English back in the 13th century, where the original word as a verb meant to work with tin, and as a noun was someone who does that. In modern times the word, as a noun, means the action of fiddling with something – or someone who fiddles with things ineffectually. And used as to “tinker with” means to fiddle with something without really knowing what you’re doing or having a clear purpose in mind.

To cut your teeth: the original term comes from about the 16th century in England, when it was (and still is) used to describe when a baby’s first teeth appear and “cut” through the gums. In the metaphorical sense, to “cut your teeth” on something means to learn something effectively, more usually but not always in a practical sense.

To steal a march on: this means to get an advantage over a competitor or rival. It originates from military use in England back in the early 18th century, when it meant to move (we presume, by marching!) troops around secretly, usually at night, to give that army an advantage over its enemy.

Toe the line: to make sure you obey rules and conform to what’s expected of you. This term probably comes from the sporting world in the early 19th century, used to make sure athletes kept their toes on the starting line so they couldn’t get an unfair advantage over other competitors. Another theory is that it comes from the House of Commons in the British parliament in the 19th century, where opposing politicians were made to stand (and not cross) while debating. Other variants in those those days included “toe the plank” and “toe the mark,” and US variants include “toe the crack” (in the floorboards, across which you couldn’t move) and also “toe the scratch,” a line scratched into a floor or even a dirt area to separate prize fighters – also in the 19th century.

Tongue-in-cheek: if something is said “tongue in cheek” it means that the speaker has some doubts about its truth or gravity, and that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Its original meaning England was that something said “tongue in cheek” was to be despised. However be the mid 19th century it was being used as it still is today. The literal connection is a bit unclear, but many experts feel it stems from “biting your tongue” to stop yourself either saying more, or in this case perhaps, to stop yourself from bursting out laughing.

Touch/knock on wood: in the UK and Australia people “touch wood” and in North America they “knock on wood,” but the meaning is the same. It comes from old-fashioned superstition that when you make a positive prediction you should touch or knock on wood to protect your prediction from failing. There are a few theories about its origins, including that it was a pagan belief that evil spirits lived in wood so to tap or touch wood would keep the evil spirits in their place. Another popular theory is that it comes from German folklore where good spirits live in trees and by touching or knocking on wood, you ask them to protect your prediction. Interestingly there are variants of this phrase almost across the world, with the possible exception of African countries.

Train wreck: a contemporary term with the literal meaning of a railroad accident. It is also used as a euphemism for an unstoppable business or civic disaster.

Tranche: in French, the word “tranche” means a slice – e.g. une tranche de pain, a slice of bread. In the metaphorical sense, in finance, a tranche is a layer or division of a larger entity, or one of a group of securities that forms a larger investment like a bond issue. In more general business, a “tranche” can mean pretty well any layer, sub-group or part of a larger whole. The word can also be used as a verb, meaning to separate into layers, sub-groups, etc.

Excerpted from Suzan St Maur’s upcoming book, “English Business Jargon & Slang,” to be published by Business Expert Press in 2018.

What are your favourite business jargon and slang terms?

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