10 Idioms You'll Hear in the Office and How to Use Them

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

In business and everyday life, you’ll hear plenty of idioms. Some may be so familiar that you don’t even question them. You probably even use many of them on a regular basis.

But some idioms have become so ingrained in our vernacular that they have taken on a life of their own—so much so that they have spawned new, and often incorrect, variations. What do these expressions mean, from where do they originate, and how do you use them correctly? Here are 10 common idioms you are likely to find in a business or work setting and how you should really be using them.

10 Common Office Idioms

1. Nip in the bud

What it means: “Nip in the bud” means stopping an issue or problem from escalating or becoming a problem at all.

Example: In a business setting, one party might nip a dilemma in the bud by coming to a resolution quickly.

Origin: In horticulture, cutting off a bud from a plant prevents it from flowering or developing further.

Misuse: “Nip in the butt” is a misspelling and incorrect variation of the phrase.

2. Cut corners

What it means: Cutting corners refers to doing something too quickly and lazily by leaving out important steps.

Example: “She really cut corners with that project; it looks sloppy.”

Origin: The most likely origin of the phrase comes from carriages turning too quickly at a sharp curve in the road, which could be very dangerous. This can occur with modern vehicles as well and result in accidents.

3. Think outside the box

What it means: A box is considered a rigid container. Thinking outside the box means finding a new, innovative way of doing something, rather than adhering to the tried-and-true method.

Example: In business projects, a manager might ask employees to think outside the box to develop a creative solution, such as a new approach to a marketing campaign.

Origin: Popularized in the 1960s and 1970s, the idiom like comes from the Nine Dots Puzzle in Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks, and Conundrums (With Answers), published in 1914. The puzzle asked readers to “Draw a continuous line through the center of all the eggs so as to mark them off in the fewest number of strokes” in a box arranged in a square. The solution requires the lines to extend outside of the box, rather than remain within its confines.

4. Dog eat dog

What it means: In a dog-eat-dog situation, people are only looking out for themselves and will stop at nothing, including tearing down the competition, to achieve their goals.

Example: In a competitive office environment, coworkers might cheat or work against each other to gain an unfair advantage, because “it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

Origin: The idiom has origins in the Latin phrase “canis caninam non est,” which means the opposite of the current usage: “a dog does not eat the flesh of a dog.” In Gnomologia, published in 1732, Thomas Fuller wrote, “Dogs are hard drove when they eat dogs.” 

Misuse: Some people believe the phrase is “doggy dog,” probably introduced into the vernacular by Snoop Dogg’s “Doggy Dogg World.”

5. Learn the ropes / show the ropes

What it means: Usually in the context of a new situation, such as starting a position at work, learning the ropes means learning the procedures, rules, and processes of how to do something.

Example: “I’m still learning the ropes at my new job; I don’t have a handle on everything yet.”

Origin: The idiom has nautical origins. Back before ships were powered by steam or fuel, crew members had to learn how to use and tie ropes attached to the sails to effectively steer the ship and make use of the wind.

6. Bring to the table

What it means: To bring something to the table means offering the benefits, such as skills, you can provide someone or something.

Example: In a job interview, a candidate will lay out the skills and experience she can bring to the table.

Origin: In gambling, players bring a certain amount of money to the card table upfront in order to increase the stakes of the game.

7. Shoo-in

What it means: A shoo-in is a clear winner.

Example: “I’m a shoo-in for this promotion.”

Origin: The expression literally refers to “shooing” or encouraging something to go in a certain direction. It first appeared in the early 20th century in reference to horse racing, when people would declare horses “shoo-ins” or obvious winners of often rigged races.

Misuse: Sometimes, the phrase is misspelled “shoe-in.”

8. Close the loop

What it means: Closing the loop means completing an agreement or cycle of communication or following up and putting an outstanding issue to rest.

Example: “Just to close the loop on this, the agreement is all set.”

Origin: In order for the system to be stable, an electronic system must be arranged in a closed loop.

9. Dog and pony show

What it means: “Dog and pony show” refers to an elaborate, often over-the-top presentation or performance. In business and politics, it is used to sway people’s opinions or leanings on an issue.

Example: “People are eating up this dog-and-pony show, but it’s all a ruse to distract them from the real issue.”

Origin: The term comes from traveling circuses in the 19th century. Some of the more low-budget of these circuses featured acts with dogs and ponies, rather than more expensive animals like elephants, and were performed in public areas.

10. Case in point

What it means: The idiom is used to provide an example to justify an argument.

Example: In a business disagreement, one party might say “case in point” and provide an example to counter the other party’s argument. 

Origin: Originally “in point” the expression comes from the French phrase, “a pointe,” meaning “to the point.” “In point” was first used in the 17th century, and “case in point” came into the vernacular in the 18th century.

Misuse: “Case and point” is an incorrect variation of this idiom.

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