Business English Jargon and Slang 1

Business English is a bit like the fashion world – words, terms and phrases come into popular use only to become passé [to fall out of fashion] next year.

You are extra “cool” if you know the language and really “out of it” if you don’t.

Though fashions come and go, much of the terminology will remain in use for many years – which means students of Business English and international businesspeople, NEED to be familiar with it.  Most native speakers unconsciously use jargon or slang that doesn’t mean much to speakers of English as a second or foreign language, so here we offer some guidance.

Colloquial American Business Jargon Defined
With credit to Pacific Overtures – whose business English website no longer exists.

The Phrase The Meaning

20-20 hindsight
perfect knowledge but too late

(someone is) the 800 pound gorilla

most important party to a transaction/or in a group

a lick and a promise

incomplete or limited preparation

arising tide that lifts all boats

something that benefits everyone

an Old (China. Japan, etc. ) Hand

someone with long experience in the place

at loggerheads


at the 11th hour

at the last minute


protecting one’s assets

begin on a shoestring

start with limited finances


develop by yourself without outside support

both sides of the aisle

from politics, Involving both parties

bring to the table

what you offer to a transaction

cake walk

easily accomplished

carve out a niche

find a special position to monopolize
Catch 22
what ever you do, it won’t work (Joseph Heller book)
Chinese wall
separation between two parts of same unit

computer virus or “bug”

software corruption

deep pockets

wealthy; has ability to pay

Do you read me?

do you understand (came from military communications)

dog and pony show

financial presentation

don’t make waves
don’t rock the boat

don’t disagree or contradict policy

down in the dumps



period when equipment isn’t available to perform

draw a line in the sand

make final conditions that cannot be changed


a job that is not necessary (union term)


apology; smoothing bad relations

free ride

obtaining benefit for no cost

from day one

from the beginning

from scratch

from the beginning


protecting one’s assets

going great guns

doing well


computer expert breaking into a system

hold feet to fire

force, bring pressure

how does that play in Peoria

what is reaction of average person at grass roots

I need it yesterday

jocular way to say it is needed immediately

in the black


Indian Summer

unusual warm weather after summer is gone

interface the system architecture

computer talk; tying into system


$100,000; K for kilo, or 1,000

it occurred on his watch

it happened when he was in charge (military saying)

it should be a two way street

both sides should benefit/contribute

it will never fly

it won’t work

it’s a jungle out there

a difficult market with tough competitors


cheap goods (W.W.I pejorative for (German)

jump through hoops

trying very hard (from a dog trick)

keep a low profile

or lie low

lay cards on the table

be perfectly honest

learning curve

speed at which one learns

level playing field

equal treatment

lion’s share

largest portion

marching orders

instructions (from the military)


to protect

not amount to a hill of beans

no value

number crunching

accounting or financial analysis

on a roll

doing well, moving forward

on the lam

flee from the law (criminal slang)

on the same wavelength

mutual understanding


review of situation

pierce the corporate veil

see the true inside story

pipe dream

unrealistic, from opium smoking

plain vanilla

simple basic version

play hardball

deal in a tough manner

Politics make strange bedfellows

mutual interests bring different people together



power lunch

big business dealing at lunch

pushing the envelope

expanding activities beyond current restrictions

put on the map

make well-known

put the scotch to

to stop

received over the transom

unsolicited (old style of door with window above)

reinvent the wheel

create something that already exists

right off the bat


robbing Peter to pay Paul

taking from one to give to another with no net gain

rule of thumb

generally used but imprecise measurement

run it up the flagpole (and see if it gets a salute)

test to see if it gains approval


hit from behind unexpectedly

save our bacon

save from danger


smart, aware, knowledgeable

sea change

a large change

sea legs (to get one’s)

to gain stability

seat of the pants operation

intuitive (flying without instruments)

set on its ear


shotgun approach

strike out widely, as opposed to a targeted rifle shot

slam dunk

from basketball; a complete success

smoke and mirrors

tricks to hide the true situation

somewhere (sometime) down the pike

sometime later on (pike is an old word for road)
square peg in a round hole
someone that doesn’t fit or perform appropriately

step up to the plate

take responsibility (from baseball)


uncontrolled descent

talk until blue In the face

persuasion with no result
the bottom line
final result or basic meaning (from accounting)

the flip side

the other side (from flipping over a phonograph record or coin)

the genie is out of the bottle

something that can never be changed back

the name of the game (is…)

the basic purpose

the proof of the pudding is in the eating

find out result with actual performance

the whole nine yards

all, everything

to grandfather something

grant exception to the rule due to preexisting status

tongue In cheek

jokingly or not truthfully

took a haircut on that one (or, took a bath)

took a loss

tweaking, e.g. the economy

slight adjustment

unwind a deal

undo, take apart

wallpaper the meeting

include people favorable to your position

what can you bring to the party (or table)

what is your contribution

what makes him tick

what is his motivation

whistling past the graveyard

trying to keep up one’s courage

whose ox gets gored

who will be harmed by this plan

zero-sum game

if someone wins, someone must lose