Business jargon and slang all the way to ZZZZ

The final part in our series on English business jargon and slang … although this is still a work in progress and is likely to be for years as more and more jargon and slang terms are devised in our business world!
Series on business jargon and slang
Under the weather: to feel under the weather means to feel unwell without any specific symptoms, or sometimes when you know what’s wrong with you but don’t want to share it with everyone else! Its origins are a little unclear, but generally seem to connect to sailors working on ships in rough seas where if they weren’t well, would be sent to the lower decks of the ship so that they were “under the weather,” so presumably they were less likely to be made sick by the rolling of the ship. There is also a theory that says the full phrase was “under the weather bow,” which is almost the opposite of the previous nautical connection: the weather bow is the part of the ship which moves and plunges the most, and if you’re under it you are like to feel unwell. All from the 20th century, though.

Walk on eggshells: eggs when whole are fragile enough, but when they have been emptied they are even more fragile and the lightest touch can crack them into fragments. To “walk on eggshells” means to progress very carefully and gently in difficult circumstances, whether in personal relationships or in business, using much tact and sensitivity. Most likely origin was in the 19th century in Britain. Other variants include “walking on eggs” (thought to be an earlier version,) “walking on thin ice,” “walking on broken glass,” etc.

Walk the line: this means to behave properly and according to rules or requirements as set out by their issuers. Many people in the USA assume that “walk the line” comes from a very popular song performed by Johnny Cash by the same name. However it is said to come from prisoners’ exercise yards in a number of English language countries from the 18th century onwards to the early 20th century, when prisoners taking exercise would have to walk along a circular painted line for the given amount of time – and were punished should they stray from it.

War of attrition: a phrase from the military in many countries, essentially meaning a “war” whereby participants use small but select tactics to try to wear down the enemy’s strength and sanity. It’s widely assumed that the term derives from World War One (1914-1918), when such tactics were used at the expense of millions of troops and innocent civilians. Unfortunately this has become a popular tactic in many business communities, too. The term is often used to describe competing businesses, usually major corporates, who try to wear each other down to soften the way forward for takeovers, amalgamations and other high-level manoeuvres.

Wax and wane: originally this term refers to the phases of the Moon, and was first seen in use in the 14th century in Britain. Today it’s a metaphor for issues in business, public services and other areas when success rates vary according to unspecified, and largely uncontrollable circumstances.

We’re on a journey: a contemporary term which is a polite euphemism for “we’re going ahead with a project.” In our politically correct times, polite euphemisms have become very popular for anything from business to medicine and particularly, cancer. Going on a journey in business is one of our recent touchy-feely terms which, frankly, don’t fool anyone.

What the hell: this phrase simply uses what at one time was considered very strong language, back in the 19th century in most English language countries. Its ruder derivatives are numerous and probably not appropriate to be explained here! Amusingly it can have two rather contradictory uses. To say “what the hell” can mean that you really aren’t bothered and are up for trying out something new. On the other hand if you were to say “what the hell do you mean by that?” to a colleague it can indicate that you are annoyed and offended by what they have said, and are demanding a pretty swift explanation.

When pigs can fly: given that pigs don’t fly and never will unless genetic engineering makes some pretty radical advances, to say that “I will believe that when pigs can fly” is a metaphor for the fact that you do not and cannot believe what the person is suggesting. Although no clear origins are documented, it seems that references to flying pigs have been mentioned in both British and American literature many times since the 17th century. The humorous image of a “flying pig” is often used to accompany statements about apparently impossible propositions.

Windfall: relating to tree-borne fruit like apples and pears, windfalls are ripe fruit that drop from the tree, so making it easy for you to pick them up and benefit from them. A windfall in business is a stroke of luck that befalls you – whether in money, circumstances or other good luck, so making your business and its projects happen more successfully. Although this term is still in active use across most English language markets, we’re told that its origins go back to the 15th century.

You are toast: a popular, contemporary term meaning that you are out of luck – finished – dismissed from your job or other terminally negative interpretations. Although this term has a very final ring to it, when you think about it “toast” is not the end of a process but the beginning of a potentially appetizing experience. Some say the expression comes from Canada, but happily the New York Times recorded the use of this term back in the latter decades of the 20th century.

You can take it as read: this means that you can count on the information so presented as being correct and therefore believe it. Origins are vague, but we can assume there is a connection between the literal interpretation and the fact that something which is “read” has been endorsed by the appropriate individuals and bodies.

Young Turk: this term may now be considered politically incorrect and may well be so, but it is still used by older people in business to describe a young employee or other contributor who has lively new ideas and is eager to share and implement them. The term was first seen in the USA in the 1920s when referring to young people who revolutionized political thinking at that time. However the term goes back to earlier times. Around the turn of the 18th – 19th century, the then Sulton of the Ottoman Empire introduced sweeping modernization of their army as induced and supported by young Turks, who went on to implement those modernizations at the expense of the old-school older generation.

Your guess is as good as mine: an expression that has been around for many years but still is heard a lot in business, public service and other areas of work. It means that the answer to a pertinent question is not in the least bit obvious, and so anyone could take a guess at the right answer. Origins are uncertain but are said to go back to the 1920s in the USA.

Zonk out: in the UK to “zonk out” means to go to sleep and/or pass out due to fatigue, excess alcohol and/or drugs consumption. A contemporary term going back to the mid 20th century, it also can be used to describe a business or other type of initiative which does not work, e.g. the new plans for the business zonked out as there were insufficient funds available to support it.

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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