Mind your Ps and Qs – English business jargon you love to hate

No matter how much we say we hate it, in business – and other areas of activity – jargon has become part of our lives whether we like it or not.

More English business jargon

Mind your Ps and Qs…

As we’re stuck with it, we may as well enjoy learning about its meanings and origins … so here we go with some more from my series. Enjoy…

From P to Q … business jargon for you

Pack rat: also “packrat” … a term in use in the USA since around the mid 19th century, meaning someone who hoards and keeps everything and can’t bear to throw anything away. Derived from the animal that takes small objects back to its nest and hoards them there. Can also be used as a verb, e.g. “he pack rats old newspapers saying he will read them again one day.”

Pain in the neck / bum / butt / ass: slang and vulgarism meaning something or someone who is a nuisance or worse. The metaphor comes from an actual pain in whichever body part is used, and how irritating and unpleasant that can be! All originate from the USA and “pain in the neck” is thought to have been introduced around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries as a more polite version of the other variants…

Pardon my French: what some people say as a light-hearted apology for swearing or using rude language. Thought to go back to the 19th century in the USA, and possibly arising in Britain from a habit in those days of dropping a foreign word – especially a French word – into the conversation to make yourself look educated and clever. In the present context, of course, the term’s use is sarcastic…

Pass the buck: probably from the mid 19th century in the USA. At that time a “buck” was not slang for a dollar, but was a device used as a marker in the card gambling game of poker. The “buck” would be passed from one player to the next in turn, supposedly to minimize the risk of cheating, and share out the responsibility of dealing the hand fairly among all players. However if the next player in line did not want to take responsibility for dealing, they could “pass the buck” along to the next person – hence the term’s present use to describe the act of passing responsibility on rather than taking it on for yourself. Interestingly, some historians say that the original “buck” was often a knife with a handle made from a deer antler, so its nickname of being a “buck.” Later on though, silver dollars were used as markers and many believe that here lies the origin of the word “buck” as a nickname for the dollar!

Pay dirt: an expression from the mid 19th century in the USA. Originally used by gold miners, if you “hit pay dirt” it meant that you had found some gold while sifting through soil, sand, etc. By the latter part of the 19th centurythe term’s use had spread and was used to refer to any potentially valuable business windfall, discovery, development etc.

Pay lip service: to “pay lip service” is to pretend to agree with something while privately not agreeing with it, or at least feeling indifferent towards it, e.g. “by saying I liked his proposal when in fact I thought it wasn’t very good, I paid lip service to it to keep the peace.” The origins of the term are hard to define; some say it comes from 16th century English when paying “lip labour” to something meant the same thing. Others, however, suggest it goes back to the Christian Bible.

Pick it up and run with it: a contemporary expression, mainly used in North America, meaning to take up an idea, proposal, etc. and develop it further. We can assume that it comes from sports like American football, rugby, etc. where the rules allow a ball to be picked up by a player who then runs with it as far as possible!

Piece of cake: if something is a “piece of cake” it’s very easy to do. The term’s origins are vague, but some experts believe it originates from the (British) Royal Air Force in the 1930s, when an easy mission or flight was known as a “piece of cake.”

Pinch of salt: another very common term, also sometimes expressed as “grain of salt.” If you take something with a “pinch/grain of salt” you don’t necessarily believe that it’s entirely true. Its origins go back a long way, when many writers and philosophers through the ages believed that to take a “grain of salt” with food or even poison would make the experience more palatable and, presumably, safer! The first to write about that, so we’re told, was Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia, in 77 A.D.

Potluck: to take “potluck” today means to take a chance on what’s available, e.g. “we weren’t sure what type of van we could rent to transport the office furniture, but we were happy to take potluck from the rental company.” The term’s origins go back to the 16th century when to “take potluck” when invited for dinner meant you would eat whatever had been cooked in the pot that day. Later on in the 19th century and especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s a “potluck meal” was one where each guest brought a dish of food so that a complete meal was formed collectively.

Precariat: a term borrowed from economics and sociology, referring to people whose lives are precarious because they have little or no security for their future jobs, which obviously affects their welfare. A predominantly British term, its use – unfortunately – is growing as more and more working people fall into this relatively new “social class.”

Pull my leg: today the term is still used by some to mean to tease or joke withe someone, although it’s now considered rather old-fashioned. However the term was not always so light-hearted, and various theories are quoted about its origins – for example, people employed to pull on the legs of offenders being hanged in England in the 18th century (so they would die faster), or the way that thieves in Victorian London supposedly would pull people by the leg to trip them, so making them easier to rob.

Pull off: slang term meaning to achieve something against odds that you might not be successful. Said to originate from the USA when used in sports reporting.

Pulling your weight: a term originate from the sport of rowing, where someone who “pulls their weight” shows the capability to contribute properly to a business project or other activity. Orignally used in England in the late 19th century when rowing was becoming a much-followed river sport.

Punch a puppy: a rather nasty term meaning to do something in business (or elsewhere) that will make you very unpopular, despite it perhaps being a good thing in the long run. Originates in the USA in the early 21sy century.

Pushover: something (or someone) who is easily defeated, or at least brought under your control. From the early 20th century in American usage, originally expressed as “push over,” but now telescoped as so many other modern terms are.

Pussyfoot: to tread carefully and lightly over a potentially sensitive subject. An obvious connection here to the way in which cats tread gently, carefully … but often with surprising effectiveness! … towards their ultimate goal. Once again, this word originates in the USA and has been in use there from the latter part of the 19th century.

Queensbury Rules: this term comes from England around the middle of the 19th century, when the Marquess of Queensbury established a code of rules to be used in the popular sport of boxing. The rules weren’t written by him, but by a Welshman by the name of John Graham Chambers. Today these rules still, essentially, govern the proper ways in which to go about the sport of boxing. However in more recent times the term is also used in a cynical way, to describe anything in business or other activities where a proper, approved way of behaving is preferred (but perhaps not actually respected or used!) e.g. “the company gained many new clients despite not exactly competing according to the Queensbury Rules…”

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 further English business jargon that should be explored and explained, please share it here in the comments!