Now for some SSSSSuccesses in English business jargon and slang…

If you spill the beans, you’d better shake a leg and sink or swim if you don’t want to go stir crazy … more fascinating origins of business and other jargon and slang in the crazy language called “English…”

English business jargon and slang, letter S

Are you as Stubborn as a mule?

Screwed, screwed up: often used as a metaphor for being damaged, or when something has happened to cause failure, e.g. “the sale of the company screwed up the engineers’ plans to create a new model of the motor.” We must assume that the term (which is officially classed as slang!) originates from the nature and usage of a screw, which is tightened by turning it around on its thread until it has fastened something. There are various other slang terms that use the word “screw,” and most of them are vulgarisms connected with action of “screwing” which, of course, also can be used as a euphemism for the sex act. However there are more innocent usages of the word, e.g. “to screw up a sheet of paper” meaning to crumple it up in your hand ready to throw away.

See eye-to-eye: this term has its origins in the Christian Bible, and its meaning hasn’t changed in the meantime…It means to agree, or if used in the negative way, to disagree … e.g. “no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t see eye to eye with my co-worker about the right way to handle the new project.”

See you around: a casual farewell statement of indeterminate origin, and rather vague in meaning, too. When you are parting company with someone and want to hint that your next meeting may not be worth planning firmly, to say “goodbye, and see you around” suggests exactly that. It’s probably best to avoid using this in a business context.

See you later: another casual farewell statement which almost means what it says, but without specifying what “later” means – it can mean later in the day, or in more of a slang way, can mean see you much later – e.g. days, weeks, etc. It is not as negative in sentiment as “see you around.”

Shake a leg: this means to hurry up. It seems this term was first clearly defined in New York magazine (USA) in the early 20th century, and is thought to have come from references in both the UK and the USA to dancing, back in the 19th century. We must assume that when dancing, if you “shake a leg” you need to do it quickly!

Short on cash: a term meaning you don’t have much money, common across all English speaking regions. There are several variants on this, e.g. “strapped for cash,” “light on cash,” etc. and it’s worth remembering that the word “cash” here does not necessarily mean the paper/metal form of money: it can also refer to your bank balance.

Sink or swim: much as this term is very clear in what it means today – your choice of failing or succeeding, entirely on your own merits – its origins go way back in British literature. A similar term, “float or sink,” was shared by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. And William Shakespeare used it exactly as it is now, in his play Henry IV, part one, written at the end of the 16th century.

Slipped my mind: thoughts vary on the origins of this term, but it’s easy to see why it came into common usage in English. If something “slips your mind” it means that you have totally forgotten about something you should not have forgotten about. It’s widely used in all English speaking countries, throughout all conversations including those within the business world.

Snowball: much as this is a contemporary word today (in countries where snow falls!) surprisingly it stems from Middle English of the late 14th century. Its literal meaning is a ball of snow, rolled up in your hands; the more you add to the snowball, the bigger it becomes. As a metaphor and a verb, if something “snowballs” it means that it grows as it progresses – sometimes very quickly. E.g. “our small campaign to promote the charity has snowballed, so it’s now reaching much larger audiences than we anticipated.”

Social enterprize: a 21st century term meaning an organization that uses business techniques not only to make money, but also to address human problems and devise solutions for them. Having developed over the last few decades in the USA, the UK, Europe and parts of Asia, the term has been described as a company that “does charity by doing trade.”

Social media: a contemporary umbrella term covering the various social and social/business internet communication platforms like Facebook, YouTube (video/audio only) LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google Plus, Pinterest, and various others. Social media exists only online (on the internet) and apart from offering purely social contact, also offers business connection opportunities through various groups on the platforms. LinkedIn is entirely business-oriented.

Social networking: this term, also contemporary as in the very late 20th into the 21st century, often is confused with “social media.” Here, however, the term means the action of communicating in the social media and building semi-social relationships with individuals and companies which may grow into business relationships in due course, once mutual trust, respect and liking have been established.

Speak your mind: a contemporary expression in the USA and other English speaking countries, meaning to say what you think. Literally, it means to speak what is going through your mind and although – in a business context – you may be asked to “speak your mind,” given the politics within some businesses you may need to tone that down if you want to stay in your job!

Spill the beans: this means to reveal information which you shouldn’t necessarily do, at least not at that time. Folklore says that this term harks back to ancient Greece where people voted on a proposition by dropping white beans into a pot if they approved, black beans if they didn’t, and someone knocking the pot over, unsurprisingly, was “spilling the beans,” therefor messing things up. However many discount that theory, and it was only in the early 20th century in the USA that the term came into its contemporary usage.

Spread like wildfire: another contemporary English language term that is self-explanatory, assuming you know what wildfire is, which – in case you don’t – is any type of fire that spreads alarmingly and is hard, if not impossible, to bring under control. This is often used to describe rumours which, in the business world or that of politics, can spread as fast as uncontrolled wildfire does, or even faster.

Squeaky clean: this contemporary English language term comes from the business of hairdressing. (Yes, really.) When someone has washed their hair and rinsed it properly, the gentle noise it makes when moved can be a “squeak” or a slight clicking sound. This term then is used to describe issues, projects, people, policies etc. in business and politics that are totally clean and not vulnerable to criticism or suspicion.

Stick with: to keep to your belief, idea, opinion, etc. The word “stick” means to adhere, cling, be pasted to. In business, to “stick with” your (whatever) is fine as long as you are convinced it is valid, but bear in mind that people who “stick with” their notions, no matter what, can be seen as a bit stubborn and unwilling to think outwardly.

Stir crazy: this term originally referred to people who were confined to almost impossible circumstances and literally became mentally ill as a result. Now the term is used as something of an over-statement to describe anyone who has experienced either physical or emotional constricts and frustration in their job or their personal life, and up until this point has not been able to resolve them.

Straw poll (or straw vote): a casual and unofficial vote to see how members of a group, company, or other organization feel about a particular issue. There are several notions as to the origins of this term, but the one that seems mostly commonly accepted is the way that, in times gone by in the UK and the USA, to establish the winner of a poll like this several strands of straw were cut up at random. An appropriate number of strands were held up in the hand of the adjudicator; contenders chose a straw from his/her hand; and the winner was whoever pulled the longest straw. Hence another, related term … when you get the short straw, it can mean you have lost in an unofficial contest.

Stubborn as a mule: to be very stubborn and so unwilling to accept a new concept, idea, etc. Another contemporary simile, this is rather unfair. Mules (a cross between a donkey and a horse) tend always to be hard-working pack animals and are only stubborn when asked to bear ridiculous burdens in ridiculous circumstances, as they are so often in countries where pack animals are treated badly. However the myth about mules being stubborn continues, and so does the simile. The term’s origins are uncertain, but it’s reasonable to assume that it goes back to pre-motorized days when equid transport was common.

Stumped: a term derived from a number of different sources including the sport of cricket … the ultimate end of a tree which has been cut down … and several more. In real terms it means that you are unable to come up with an answer or solution to a question posed.

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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