Learning a language can be difficult in itself, with so many different accents to get used to, pronunciations to learn, and slang to keep up with. Business English almost has its own subset of vocabulary and phrases, and these can confuse even the best and brightest English speaker.
Business English vocabulary contains a lot of little phrases called idioms. Unique types of idiom can be found in almost every language and culture, and they’re mostly used to express meaning in a metaphorical way. If you’re starting a new office job, or want to prepare for a future in business in the UK, read through our top 15 business English idioms, to make sure you stay ahead of the game.
Blue chip company
Meaning: Deriving its meaning from the fact that blue chips in poker have the highest value, a ‘blue chip company’ is a company that is well-established, financially stable and has a good reputation. Some blue chip companies include Disney and Coca-Cola.
Example: “It is always safe to invest in blue chip companies.”
Meaning: If a business is described as ‘above board’, then their actions are legal, open and honest. This phrase might come from card playing, where participants are seen to be playing fairly if they keep their hands above the gaming table or board.
Example: “That company always does its dealings above board.”
Get down to brass tacks
Meaning: When you ‘get down to brass tacks’ you’re getting to the heart of an issue or problem. The exact etymology of this phrase is debated, but it is widely thought to have originated in Texas.
Example: “In the managerial meeting, we got straight down to brass tacks.”
Cog in the machine
Meaning: By calling someone a ‘cog in the machine’ you are saying that, whilst they play a part in the company, they are not overly important. Usually applies to workers in larger companies and businesses.
Example: “I left my job because I just felt like a cog in the machine.”
Blue collar worker
Meaning: A ‘blue collar worker’ is someone who works in manual labour. Some blue collar professions are construction, maintenance and mining. The name references the blue shirts that manual labourers used to wear, that could hold dirt around the collar without standing out.
Example: “Blue collar workers in the factories are asking for a pay rise.”
Corner a market
Meaning: To ‘corner a market’ means to get sufficient control of a particular product or stock, in order to then manipulate the prices. It can take a lot of money before one is able to ‘corner a market’ in this way.
Example: “They’ve essentially cornered the fast-food market, they’re in every city in the country.”
Get something off the ground
Meaning: If a plan or activity ‘gets off the ground’ then it starts or succeeds. The phrase alludes to a plane taking flight.
Example: “I’ll feel a lot better once this event gets off the ground.”
Hit the nail on the head
Meaning: To ‘hit the nail on the head’ means to get precisely to the point. Whilst no one knows the exact origins of this phrase, it is known to be extremely old. It can be found in The Book of Margery Kempe, circa 1438.
Example: “Sally really hit the nail on the head in that meeting.”
Meaning: Something (usually a decision) that requires no thought, and is really easy to make.
Example: “You should take the job- it’s a no brainer.”
Meaning: Someone who is given a ‘pink slip’ has been fired from their job. The phrase is thought to have come from vaudeville in the early 1900s; when the United Booking Office wanted to cancel a show, the notice was on a pink slip.
Example: “Minnie got her pink slip this morning.”
Meaning: This refers to excessive rules and regulations that make it hard to get anything done. The phrase is thought to come from 18th century England, where official documents of the royal government were tied together with red ribbon or tape.
Example: "Nothing ever gets done around here, there’s too much red tape!”
Meaning: When a situation is described to be ‘smooth sailing’, it means everything has gone to plan. Alludes to calm waters, with no big waves.
Example: “That interview went really well, it’s all smooth sailing from here.”
Meaning: The ordinary postal service, as opposed to electronic mail. Alludes to the slowness of a snail.
Example: “She sent it by snail mail, so it won’t be here until next week.”
The elephant in the room
Meaning: An obvious problem or issue that no one wants to talk about, but everyone is aware of. The phrase has been used in various titles for books and films, including a book by Typpo and Hastings called An elephant in the living room: a leader's guide for helping children of alcoholics, published in 1984.
Example: “His inappropriate behaviour was the elephant in the room.”
Meaning: To make contact with someone. Some think the phrase is referencing baseball and the act of touching bases during the game.
Example: “I need to touch base with Jane later to discuss our monthly targets.”
We hope that this short guide to some of the business English idioms you might come across comes in handy. If you’re finding it difficult to keep up with the fast-pace of business speak, a top tip is to keep a notebook in your pocket and to write down all of the unfamiliar phrases you hear, then to look them up later. If you need more help getting to grips with business English vocabulary, try our English for work course.