Business jargon bits – do you know what these “A” words mean?

Ever wonder why we talk about “a month of Sundays?” Or “at the drop of a hat?” Here’s a selection of English jargon beginning with “A” that you’ll often see in business writing or hear in meetings, talks and presentations.

HTWB jargon 01

Let’s start at the beginning…

101: a special number used to show that whatever it’s linked to is introductory – like, for an example an introductory course or lesson in something. There are various versions of the number’s origins, but according to Daniel Engber, columnist on, “in the late 1920s. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first use of “101” as an introductory course number in a 1929 University of Buffalo course catalog. Colleges and universities began to switch to a three-digit course-numbering system around this time.” As with so many such examples, after a while the term filtered through into general slang and business jargon and is now used commonly to describe the basic, introductory elements of almost anything from sports to cooking.

$64,000 question: this comes from an American TV game show that goes back to the 1950s. The game consisted of contestants answering a series of questions each worth a given amount, the most difficult of which was worth $64,000 in prize money for contestants getting the right answer. Since then the term has become well used across business and other subjects, meaning a question the answer to which is critically important to an enterprise, project, business outcome, etc.

A dime a dozen: a metaphor meaning plentiful and cheap, as in a dime (just 10 US cents) would pay for 12 units of whatever was concerned. The term probably originates from the USA in the 19th century when fruits and vegetables were in season and plentiful, and so were sold for a “dime a dozen.” Perhaps not as cheap as all that though; a dime in 1850 would be worth around USD $2.95 (2016 value). Still, even today that’s not expensive for 12 good quality pieces of fruit or vegetables!

A gray area: perhaps a slightly unfair reference to the color gray, being neither white nor black and so unclear and rather vague. This term has been in use since the mid 20th century and is used to describe something that is not certain, and possibly not trustworthy. For example, “there is a large gray area between what is legal and what is not.”

A lemon: not a piece of citrus fruit, but a word used to describe a product or service that doesn’t work, for whatever reason. Common examples of “a lemon” include a car that is always breaking down or has manufacturing faults, and investments that fail to make money. No-one seems to know exactly why the word “lemon” has come to describe such bad things, but it’s probably connected with the lemon’s bitter, sour taste.

A life saver: not literally someone or something that saves your life, but a metaphor for some good luck or timely help that will get you out of a potentially difficult situation in your business or social life.

A month of Sundays: means a long time, possibly never. A month of Sundays wouldn’t really be that long, however; 31 weeks, only around 7 months or so. The expression has been in use in English since the mid 18th century – possibly longer.

A pain in the neck: this is probably the most polite version of the expression, which can also be a pain in a number of other body parts – most of which are considered rude! Origins are unclear but likely to be from the USA, from about 1900 or so.

A piece of cake: means something that is very easy to do, perform, make, etc. Originates from the USA in the late 19th century when cake was given out as prizes for competitions that were very easy to win. (Certainly does not originate from cooking/baking, though, unless you’re an expert!)

A toss-up: (also “tossup”) goes back to the tossing of a coin to see whether “heads” or “tails” will win a dispute, in the USA around the mid 18th century. Now can be used to describe a time when a choice must be made among alternatives, or even as an adjective describing a place, event or political situation that’s doubtful in some way – e.g. “a tossup county” (meaning one in which there are no clear election favorites.)

Above and beyond: this is tautology, really, because the two words mean almost the same thing, but are used together in this expression to emphasise their point. Someone who goes “above and beyond” their call of duty is someone who puts in extra effort, work, time etc. without expecting any reward.

Act out: means to perform in the way that an actor does, but in this case it’s more likely to be someone in business who is “acting out” a role that they may not necessarily be good at or qualified for. It’s also used in role-play training exercises, where you “act out” the role of an angry customer, bossy colleague, bullied co-worker etc.

Act up: an American expression meaning to make a fuss, get angry, or otherwise misbehave. Commonly used to describe what children do sometimes, especially at very inconvenient moments, but can also happen in the workplace and so needs to be dealt with. Can also be used when talking about a machine, medical condition, car etc. is being troublesome, e.g. “the laser printer is acting up again.”

All ears: if you are “all ears,” it means you are listening and concentrating totally on what someone is saying. Apparently the term was first used back in the 18th century.

All and sundry: it seems this term has a very long history, going back as far as the 1400s, and according to some experts its roots go back even further via Middle and Old English. Today it means absolutely everyone connected with the person or occasion it applies to, e.g. “when she got engaged she rushed to tell all and sundry her good news.”

At the drop of a hat: from the USA in the 19th century when races or other competitions were often started by someone either waving or dropping a hat. Given that all involved had to get moving very fast, the expression came to mean to do something quickly and easily, e.g. “he would come over to help you at the drop of a hat.”

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!

Image from Google Images “free to use even commercially” but thanks anyway to Wired!