J for jokes right through to M … English business jargon

Would you dare “let the cat out of the bag” or would you do better to “keep a stiff upper lip?” Or would you do some “key smashing” instead?

Business jargon by Suzan St Maur

Do you turn into a “junkyard dog” when a “johnny-come-lately” annoys you with some “jiggery-pokery?”

English business jargon from J to M

Jiggery-pokery: any slightly underhand or potentially suspicious, dishonest activity. A British term, this is said to be variant of the Scottish “joukery-pawkery” from the 19th century.

Johnny-come-lately: as the words suggest the term means mean someone who is a newcomer – and perhaps not a totally welcome one. The implication is of someone who probably thinks they know more about what’s going on than they actually do – an “upstart.” The term in its present form was first heard in the USA in the 19th century, but similar terms were used in Britain and in the Napoleonic in the early 19th century and throughout the Napoleonic Wars.

Junkyard dog: a 20th century US term meaning an especially unpleasant and aggressive person. Given that guard dogs used to protect junkyards from being interfered with are usually very vicious, you can see how the term has developed…

Keep a stiff upper lip: although this term is often thought to be entirely British in origin, it was popular in the USA from the early 19th century. The idea was that if you keep your upper lip stiff you can’t show much emotion on your face, so giving others the impression that you are fearless and confident, if rather unsmiling. Today the term is more usually used in a humorous way to describe – unfairly, as it turns out – the supposed British cool and rather pompous seriousness.

Keep an eye on: (also “keep an eye out for) a metaphor for monitoring someone or something, presumably while you’re doing others things as well. This is said to have originated from the use of telescopes, where although one eye would be used to for that purpose the other eye was free to keep someone or something under observation!

Keep cool: although this expression can be and often is used in its literal sense – i.e. to avoid becoming overheated – it’s more usual meaning is to remain calm and unflustered no matter what may be going wrong for you at the time. The word “cool” in its metaphorical sense is very commonly used across the English speaking cultures and is used in some other languages, too. Mainly it became widespread in the 20th century, although there are instances where it was used metaphorically before that.

Key smashing: a term that we should assume didn’t exist before computers, because it describes what you do when either due to extreme happiness – or more likely, extreme anger and/or frustration – you smash your keyboard with your hands. If you’re lucky your keyboard won’t break, but you’ll get an interesting mixture of nonsense appearing on your screen. NB: typewriters, the precursors of word processing on laptops, etc., were usually very tough and strong so to “key smash” on one of those would have resulted in very painful hands.

Kick off: a sports term used from about the mid 19th century onwards in both soccer and American football, this is commonly used as a slang term for the start of something, e.g. “to kick off the meeting, let’s record the apologies.” In the UK and some other English language areas “to kick off” is also used to describe someone who intends to make trouble, complain or otherwise be a little unpleasant, e.g. “that customer came to back and kicked off about what she said was very poor service.”

Kick the bucket: this means to die. The expression has been widely used in Britain since the 18th century or earlier. Some people believe that it refers to someone hanging themselves by standing on an upturned bucket (pail), tying themselves to a noose, then kicking the bucket away. However it’s more likely that “bucket” here refers to an earlier meaning of the word, from the 16th century, when it meant a beam or yoke from which you could hang things.

Kill time: to do this is to find something idle to do while waiting for something more important to happen., e.g. “because the Chairman had been delayed in traffic the rest of us had to kill time while waiting for him to arrive.” The term originates from the USA in the 18th century.

Let the cat out of the bag: this expression means to reveal a secret when it’s wrong to do so, e.g. “our manager let the cat out of the bag when she told us about the company’s proposed takeover bid.” There are a number of explanations for this term: one is that it refers to sailors being lashed by the “cat o’ nine tails” whips in punishment, However another, which may make more sense, is that merchants would cheat customers by selling them a piglet and placing it into a sack for transportation, then sneakily exchange the piglet for a cat (which presumably was worth much less). Supposedly the customer would not discover this until they got home and literally “let the cat out of the bag.”

Let’s message this: a contemporary expression meaning to share information that’s considered important enough to be circulated.

Lights are on but nobody is home: a humorous metaphor for someone who isn’t very intelligent, or who is so busy daydreaming they can’t concentrate on what’s going on around them. Origins are 20th century USA.

Look on the bright side: to take an optimistic view of something. This term is said to have originated from a song by the British comedy team called Monty Python in the later decades of the 20th century, but it’s likely that the term had been around for some time prior to that. It’s also possible that it refers to the “bright side” of the moon..

Luddite: someone who is a Luddite dislikes technology and prefers to avoid it wherever possible. The term originates from Britain in the early 19th century, when a certain Ned Ludd, a worker from Leicestershire, organised a group of workers to disable and destroy the increasing amount of mechanisation that was being introduced into industry. His influence spread quite widely, because workers like him thought that the introduction of machines would reduce employment. It’s interesting to see how that emotion has been seen again, in some areas of industry, ever since…

Make my day: this expression had been around for some time but was made famous in the 1983 “Dirty Harry” movie, “Sudden Impact,” in a line spoken by the character Harry Callahan. The author was Charles B. Pierce. Today the term is used, often in a slightly sarcastic way, to suggest something that will make the person’s day either better (or worse!) E.g., “if these budgets don’t work out, that will really make my day.”

Millennials: a general English language term meaning people who were born around or shortly before the turn of the 20th-21st centuries. The actual dates are often argued about, with various experts disagreeing over when millennials start and stop, but in the USA it’s generally accepted that millennials were born in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mindset: a contemporary term meaning someone’s attitude, set of beliefs, or intended behavior. The word has become popularly used in the early 21st century but in fact had been around for about 100 years.

Miss the boat: if you “miss the boat” literally, it means the boat has left without you and your intended activity won’t go  ahead. Metaphorically, if you “miss the boat” it means you have lost an opportunity, e.g. “we really missed the boat by not hiring that great bookkeeper.” The term, which is also sometimes expressed as “missed the bus” or “missed the train,” has been in use in most English languaContemge areas since the first half of the 20th century.

Mission statement: a short piece of text that describes the purpose, values and aims of a company, business, charity or other organisation. This is then used to keep reminding the people involved of direction of the organisation, and also to inform new members of the same values and goals. A contemporary term used in business across most English language cultures since the 20th century.

Mix up: a mix up is used to describe confusion, or a misunderstanding that leads to problems in a business or other activity. A contemporary term used in most English language areas.

Mixed blessing: the word “blessing” comes from religion, where the term suggests the receipt of good luck or a benevolent influence. For something to be a “mixed blessing,” it will have potential advantages, but also potential disadvantages at the same time. E.g., “the new canteen at work is a mixed blessing, because although the food is much better than before it’s also more expensive.” Some say the term was first made popular in a novel by the same name, by Danielle Steele, published in 1993.

Money doesn’t grow on trees: vaguely humorous, this term stresses that money is a valuable commodity and has to be respected – and earned! The term is often used to reprimand someone for wanting to spend more on something than is wise, e.g. “I don’t think we can afford that new office furniture, you know. Money doesn’t grow on trees.” It’s thought that the term originates from the USA in the late 19th century.

Monkey business: silliness and other frivolous behavior that isn’t really harmful, just, well, silly. As monkeys’ behavior when you watch can appear silly and irrational (but playful) we can assume this may be where the term comes from. However there are some rather different stories about its origins which have only their dates in common – the early 19th century. One is that it is a translation of a Bengali phrase that was adopted by the British while they occupied India at that time, and British parents would tell their children not to get up to any “monkey tricks.”Another theory is that it’s connected with the word “monkeyshine” which, amongst other things, was used in a song in the 1830s that insulted African-American slaves. The term “monkey business” as such was not seen in print until the 1880s, in the USA.

Moving the goalposts: a term from the sporting world in which goalposts most certainly do not move, thereby making sure play is kept fair to all teams and team members. To “move the goalposts” is a metaphor that means to alter circumstances at an inappropriate time/way during – say – a business negotiation, meaning that one side gets an unfair advantage and obviously the other side is disadvantages. The term became widely used in the UK in the 1980s.

Mum’s the word: to keep something secret and unspoken, you tell them “mum’s the word.” The word “mum” used to mean “silent” in the 16th century (and even earlier.) The term “mum’s the word was seen in regular use from the 18th century onwards, long after William Shakespeare made it famous in a line from his play Henry VI, “Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum.”

Watch out for more “English Business Jargon” … being published as a series here on HTWB and as a book in 2018 by Business Expert Press, USA.

In the meantime if you think of any English business jargon that should be explored and explained, please share it here in the comments!

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