Business jargon C words – no, not THAT one…

Would you “cock a snook” at a “cup of joe” and just “chill out?” And would you know where those terms originate? Find out the fascinating roots of our favorite business and other jargon here…

business jargon explained on HTWB

Should you “chew out” someone who cries “crocodile tears?”

C-Suite: this is an affectionate slang term for the senior directors/vice presidents and other top people in an organisation and, presumably, where their offices are located! It’s said to originate from the fact that many of the senior job titles in a company start with the letter “C” – e.g. Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Technical Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Information Officer, etc.

Can’t make head nor tail of it: (also can’t make head or tail of it) means you can’t understand something at all, and/or you find it horribly confusing. Apparently the Roman politician Cicero once wrote “Ne caput nec pedes” (neither head nor feet) when he was confused about something. More recently (from about the second half of the 17th century) people began using the term closer to its present form, but no-one is sure why we refer to “head nor tail.” Logically though, this must mean top/bottom, beginning/end, or of course two sides of the same coin.

Can’t stand it: if you can’t stand something, you dislike it intensely. The word “stand” seems to have a very wide variety of roots including Sanskrit, followed by Old Irish, Greek, Latin, Old High German, Middle Dutch, Old Saxon, Old English and Middle English!

Carry on: the meaning if this term varies according to where you are, and can be used in more than one way. One meaning of “to carry on” is a slang term for behaving badly, especially in North America. However another use of the word, mainly by the British, means to keep going in a positive way. This was made famous during Word War Two with that now-iconic poster, “Keep Calm And Carry On” – meaning to be brave, try to relax and get on with life despite the fear and constraints of war.

Cat nap: a short sleep or rest that you take during the day. Cats are known to sleep a lot, mainly during the day which is probably where the term originates. However some people say that it goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians who regarded cats as sacred creatures, and who probably copied their cats’ sensible desire to rest for short periods – especially during the heat of the day!

Catch 22: this is based on the meaning of catch that’s connected with a problem or delay, and comes from the famous novel by Joseph Heller and the ensuing movie. In Heller’s novel, the Catch 22 referred to contradictory bureaucratic rules during World War Two that meant soldiers were stuck one way or another between regulations. Today the term is used to describe any problem where you can’t move forward because of conflicting circumstances  – e.g. if every teaching job demands previous experience, it’s impossible for you to gain enough teaching experience to qualify.

Catch on: something – e.g. a trend, idea, etc. – “catches on” when it is taken up by a number of people. In some ways this term was the forerunner of today’s expression “to go viral.”

Chicken out: it seems people have been regarding chickens as fearful, spineless birds since Shakespeare’s time when, in Cymbeline in 1623, he wrote “Forthwith they flye Chickens, the way which they stopt Eagles.” (Mind you, if you have seen an angry rooster defending his ladies in the farm yard you will disagree with this sentiment…) Anyway, today someone who “chickens out” of a promise, agreement, etc., is letting you down and/or backing out, possibly because they lack the courage to go ahead with it.

Chew out: slang for telling someone off or reprimanding them, e.g. “my boss chewed me out because I had forgotten an important client meeting.” Rumor has it that the expression became popular in the US Army during Word War Two, when superiors’ act of shouting and talking when telling someone off, reminded them of someone chewing vigorously.

Chill / chill out: a comparatively recent slang term meaning to relax and stop fussing, with the word “chill” being a close relative of “cool” as in “cool down.” However there is nothing new about the origins which go back prior to 900 AD, as far as the Middle English chile and Old English ci(e)le, cele meaning coolness.

Chinese whispers: originally this was a game for children, whereby the first child is given a phrase to say. They then whisper it into the ear of the next child and so-on until the last child has heard it. They repeat the phrase, or at least what they think the phrase was. But more often than not by the time the whispering has got to the final child, the phrase has become something quite different which can be very funny. The game exists in many countries and is called by a variety of names, but this version is thought to originate in Britain in the 20th century, where people believed that Chinese languages were impossible to understand and translate. In business, the term is used to describe information/gossip being passed around a company or other organisation and with each incarnation, the facts become increasingly altered and distorted.

Chip on your shoulder: explanations for the origins of this term vary quite a lot, but one common denominator seems to be a trend in the 19th century for two people arguing. One would place a chip of wood on their shoulder, inviting the other to try to knock it off. Today someone who has “a chip on their shoulder” is someone who is particularly sensitive and irritable about something and will argue and become offensive if another person mentions it. Hence the old joke about someone who was “a perfectly balance person: they had chips on both shoulders.”

Clam up: someone “clams up” when they suddenly stop revealing information about something. Thought to come from the behavior of clams, the bivalve mollusks, who are very quick to shut their shells when threatened – and are reluctant to open up again until the danger is past.

Cock a snook: mainly British expression which the Americans call “the five-fingered salute.” You place one hand vertically at a 45° angle to your face with the tip of your thumb resting on the tip of your nose with your fingers erect and waggling. The meaning is that you don’t like and/or don’t take seriously whatever or whoever is being discussed at the time. Origins are very vague: a “snook” is a promontory of land that sticks out which could resemble your hand when it’s in place, and “cock” could refer to the way your hand resembles a cock’s (rooster’s) comb.

Coffee break: the meaning of the word “break” as a noun, as it is here, is a stop or interruption in an otherwise continuous process. A coffee break is taken to mean a stop during the working day, when you may enjoy coffee, tea and/or a snack before getting back to your duties. In the UK it’s often referred to as a “tea break,” although coffee is gradually replacing tea as the drink of choice in many businesses, especially in the south.

Cold feet: to have cold feet (when used as a metaphor) means to become afraid or suddenly have second thoughts about something you previously were going to do, e.g. I was going to go parachute jumping but I got cold feet at the last minute.” There are various examples of where the term has been used in literature over the last two hundred years or so, but no-one knows for sure which was the first time it was used. It may just be related to the fact that if your feet become cold, you probably don’t want to continue walking forward!

Cool as a cucumber: it’s interesting to see how the word “cool” has varied in meaning over time. Currently (2017) it’s used as a slang way of saying someone is composed and self-assured – as well as fashionable. Previously and simultaneously “cool” meant and means slightly cold, e.g. the temperature is quite cool outdoors today. However how people use it today in a slang fashion actually was first published in one of John Gay‘s poems back in 1732, as in “I … cool as a cucumber could see The rest of womankind.” The reference to cucumbers is thought to be purely because cucumbers always feel cool to the touch.

Copy cat: a copy cat is someone who copies another person’s behavior or even their work. It’s thought to have come from people watching kittens copy the behavior of the mother cat. Probably the oldest known use of the term was in 1896 in “The Country of Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett. However some experts believe the term’s origins go back a lot further than that.

Couch potato: a 20th century expression meaning someone who sits around on the couch (or sofa, settee, armchair, etc.) watching TV and being lazy. It was coined, so we’re told, by Tom Iacino from California, who founded a group to counter the rising popularity of exercise and healthy eating in the 1970s. The reference to “potato” may be due to the fact that potatoes are tubers, and in the USA a slang term for television is “the tube.”

Crocodile tears: used when someone expresses emotions by crying in an unconvincing way, suggesting they’re doing it for effect and not because they’re sad. This is based on an old myth that animals spill tears when they’re eating, which was discounted until the early 21st century when scientists ran tests using alligators and caimans (close relatives of crocodiles) and found that many of them do express tears when eating. This is not due to sadness (hence the term) but is possibly connected with the animals’ breathing while chewing, swallowing, etc. causing their tear glands to empty into their eyes. So the ancient crocodile observers many not have wrong, after all.

Cry over spilt milk: to do this means to worry about and regret something unfortunate that has happened and can’t be repaired or put right, e.g. my kettle is broken beyond repair so there’s no point crying over spilt milk – let’s just buy a new one. There are various theories about where the term originates, mostly in literature the farthest back of which is in Paramoigraphy by James Howell, in 1659.

Cup of joe: a slang term meaning a cup of coffee. One theory about the origin of “joe” is that it refers to the average person, like “guy,” “chap,” etc. Another theory which seems to be more likely, is that it’s an abbreviation for Josephus Daniels – Secretary of the US Navy – who in June 1914, a couple of months after the USA joined the Allied Forces in WW1, banned alcoholic drinks on all US Navy ships. As the next most interesting choice of drink was coffee, and Josephus was blamed for the change, sailors started referring to their new drink as “a cup of joe.”

Cut corners: this term is almost a literal description of its meaning – instead of going around the proper route along a road or around an arena, you cut across a corner to shorten a route. However in so doing you’re not completing the course properly, which is why the metaphorical use of the term means to do something on the cheap, or by leaving out potentially important steps, to make it shorter or easier. Possibly one of the earliest uses of this term was by Mark Twain back in 1869, in “The Innocents Abroad.”

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!