More bitsa business jargon – plenty of B’s

“B” is for “Big Apple” and “Big cheese” … but do you know the real meaning of “bust my chops,” “boil the ocean,” or even the humble “by the way?” The next in my new series

English Business Jargon demystified on HTWB

Do you know the REAL meaning of “bust my chops,” “boil the ocean,” or even the humble “by the way?”

Bad apple: if you know about horticulture you will know that one bad apple in a collection of good ones has the ability to make all the others rot in a short space of time. That’s how the metaphor works: one “bad apple,” e.g. a negative or disruptive member of a team, employee, supplier etc., or even an inappropriate policy within a project, can be enough to cause a lot of damage to the overall organisation or activity. The term may originate from religious sermons preached in the USA in the 19th century.

Baker’s dozen: an old-fashioned term for the number 13, and often a euphemism for a quantity or entity that delivers a bit more than it needs to. Supposedly this originates in medieval times when bakers added an extra loaf – or even two extra loaves – to a dozen (12) of bread, just in case someone might take them up on delivery quantity in weight terms – in which case they would be penalized.

Bear in mind: this terms goes way back to Middle English, but today uses the more common mean of “to bear” which is to carry, or maintain. For example, “although the problem seems hard to deal with right now, bear in mind that we have faced it before and in fact the solutions are quite easy to implement.”

Bear with me: this uses the earlier meaning of the word “bear” which in Shakespeare‘s day meant “to have patience with,” as in this quote from Julius Caesar …”Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar … And I must pause till it come back to me.”  Today, we use it when we want people to have patience with us while we explain something, or sometimes to ask people to trust us to deliver.

Beat it: a term immortalised by many famous people, perhaps the most famous of whom is the late Michael Jackson whose song by that name and inspiration were truly iconic. However back here in the real world it can mean a number of things … e.g. as an exclamation telling someone or something to, er, go away quickly … a way of saying how one accomplishment “beat” another … plus various culinary/cooking terms which probably aren’t required here…

Beggars belief: although in modern times we think of beggars as a plural noun for someone who begs, to “beggar” started off in the 16th century as a verb meaning to make poor, or to drain value/resources from. So if something beggars belief, it greatly reduces the value of what you might believe about that particular thing, or to put it simply, makes it hard for you to believe something. So for example, “that ridiculous statement of his beggars belief.”

Begs the question: means to require, or at least ask for, further explanation, e.g. “her repeated absence from work begs the question of whether she should be asked to resign.” The term’s origins go all the way back through Latin and Greek to Aristotle himself, and its meaning changed several times along the way. It first began being used with its current meaning in Shakespeare’s era, as with “beggars belief.”

Best of both worlds: a term that means you can gain from more than one source, circumstance or opportunity (usually if there are two), at the same time. No-one seems to know where the term originates, and in any case it’s a little vague anyway. An example might be “I’m able to combine my work as it’s also my hobby, which means I benefit from the best of both worlds.”

Beyond the pale: describes something or someone that is outside / beyond safe limits. In this case the word pale refers to an upright wooden stick, several of which strung together form a type of fencing known as paling. So if it’s beyond the pale, it means it is beyond the safety of the surrounding fence.

Big Apple: An affectionate nickname for New York city, USA. There are many suggestions as to why this came about, including rather whimsical ideas like wealthy families having to sell apples in the streets of New York during the Great Depression, jazz musicians referring to their performances as apples, slang used by stable lads working with race horses, and even apples as a euphemism for an elite brand of prostitutes in NYC. However most historians attribute the term to a sports writer on the New York Morning Telegraph, John J. Fitzgerald, who decided to refer to New York as The Big Apple in each of his horse-racing columns … possibly inspired by the stable lads!

Big cheese: means an important person, often referring to the boss of a business, chairman, CEO and other similar leading positions. Probably originates from the USA in the very early 20th century when cheese-making was an up-and-coming skill, and physically huge whole cheeses for marketing and display purposes.

Big wig: another term meaning an important person. Nowadays often written as one word, i.e. bigwig. Its origins can be traced back to the 17th century in France, when King Louis XIII started going bald at a young so decided to wear a wig. Over the ensuing years this turned into a fashion and by the reign of King Louis XIV, anyone who was anyone in Europe was wearing a wig … the bigger the better, or at least your wig’s size would signify how important you were. Looking back on illustrations of those wigs today, we can see that some were ridiculously large. Fortunately the wig fashion is no longer with us – but the term survives.

Bird brain: term that rather rudely assumes birds are stupid. Although a little old-fashioned now, it is still used to describe someone who is either stupid, superficial, or both.

Bitter pill: an obvious one! Normally used as in, e.g., “although the company’s merger initially was a bitter pill for staff to swallow, today all seems to be working well. The origins of “a bitter pill” go back a long way and refer, in those days, to “pills” that really were bitter and tasted horrible, unlike our modern tablets and capsules. The term was first given major public prominence in this quotation from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814): “Mrs. Rushworth will be very angry. It will be a bitter pill to her.”

Boil the ocean: means to overdo something, usually without there being a good reason to do so. It can also refer to expectations of achieving far greater results from an activity than are reasonable in the circumstances. For example, if someone thinks they can conduct a survey of several hundred employees in the space of a few days and analyse the data as well, with minimal resources, they could be said to be boiling the ocean. This has become something of a cliché in modern business but you still hear it frequently.

Bookworm: someone who loves books, or at least that’s how the term is used in contemporary circles. In fact, though, back in the 17th century or so bookworms were worms that inhabited books. That’s undoubtedly where the current use of the term originates.

Break a leg: a lovely term based on the superstitions of everyone who works in theatre, acting, etc. Essentially this is what you say to someone or something that is about to go live in theatre, movies, etc., instead of saying “good luck” which for some reason better known to Shakespeare has connections going back to the incredibly bad luck that was seen in his play Hamlet – plus many of his other tragedies. Or at least that’s what my actor friends tell me. But much as non-theatrical types might think this is woo-woo, bear in mind that many actors are very superstitious. So if you have friends in this business who are about to open in a new play or other theatrical enterprise, make sure you just say “break a leg.”

Burn the midnight oil: to work very long hours on something, e.g. “I was really burning the midnight oil to complete that report on time.” The term comes logically from pre-electricity days when if you stayed up late at night to work you would need to burn oil in your lamp, so you could see. Probably the first recorded use of the term was by British writer Francis Quarles, in 1635.

Bush telegraph: a term that would not pass a political correctness test in the modern world: essentially, it means a fast way of sharing information, usually by word of mouth. However its origins in Australia suggest “any system of communication in which the natives of a jungle or bush region transmit news rapidly, as by runners, drum codes, or smoke signals,” according to It’s unlikely that this method of communication is still rampant in modern day Australia…

Bust someone’s chops: this is almost street slang, but still may well be heard in business circles! Contrary to what you might think it does not mean to hit someone in the face. It means to pester and nag at someone, presumably to get them to do something, as in “OK, I’m doing it now. Don’t bust my chops.” Origins are sketchy but “bust” has become a well-known slang alternative to “break,” and “chops,” which means the lower part of your face, could go back into history. This is from the fashion for men, starting in the 19th century and still seen today, to grow large sideburns that are shaped like a mutton or lamb chop (cut of meat.)

Busy as a bee: an old-fashioned term describing someone who is always on the move being “busy,” although not necessarily achieving more for that fact. The analogy is thought to have been used first by the British poet Chaucer back in the 15th century, in a line from his “Canterbury Tales” – “In wommen be; for ay as busy as bees.”

By heart: to learn something by heart means that you memorize it, so you can then recite it from memory. The term’s origins go back to the Ancient Greeks, the Middles Ages, plus a few, when people assumed that the heart was not only the physical center of the human body but also it was the mental center. So to learn something “by heart” was erroneously ascribed to the heart rather than the brain as it we now know it should be.

By the way: a term that has become so commonplace in the English language that it mainly slips under the “why” radar. However like many English jargon phrases it has an interesting and very long history. Shakespeare used the term in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590): “Lets follow him, and by the way let us recount our dreames.” Essentially, even to this day, it means as an aside, or “by the (mainstream) way.”

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!