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Best English Idioms

Make your business English excel with power-packed phrases ...


March 2015

bated breath

bated / baited breath - anxious, expectant (for anexplanation, answer, etc).

"I'm waiting for my client's response with bated breath".

The breath is cut short, or stopped; a shortened form of abate. Used byShakespeare in The Merchant Of Venice. Often spelt nowadays as 'baited', because the breath is seen as 'baited' (like a trap or hook, waiting to catch something).

board of directors

board of directors - or 'the board' .

In the late middle-ages, board meant table (from Saxon 'bord' which also used for shield), This is the origin of the word boardroom; and from the in early 1900s there was apiece of furniture called a sideboard.

give me a break

Tolerate, overlook a mistake

"I didn't mean to do that. Please give me a break."

This probably derives from billiards and snooker, according to Partridge/OED. The opening shot in a game breaks the initial formation of the balls. Earliest use of break was in the US in 1827 according to Partridge.

February 2015

Backs to the wall / against the wall

Meaning: Defending a position to the end.

Example: When a small business faces a hostile takeover bid from a large company, it will be backs to wal  for it to survive.

Origin: Probably from an order in the First World War by the British commanding offcer Genearl Haig, telling his troops to fight the enemy to the end.

Back of the envelope calculations

Meaning: Quick calculations, using approximate numbers, instead of exact ones

Example: I don't need the exact numbers right now. Just give me some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Origins: Unknown. This expression refers to the informal calculations, as on the back of an envelope. (Alternative: 'back of a cigarette packet calculations'. The slang term 'fag' sometimes replaces 'ciagarette' in this idiom).

Lame duck

Meaning: A person or thing which has lost its power or authority.

Example: Some people consider Barack Obama a lame duck President as he has lost control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Origins: Once a London Stock Exchange term for a member unable to meet their obligations, as they were said to 'waddle' out of Exchange Alley, which existed until 1773.

January 2015

Ducks in a row

Meaning: Having plans and strategies prepared and organised.

Example: When you present your business plan to investors you need to have all your ducks in a row.

Origins: Unknown. Popular in business from the 1980s onwards, referring to being prepared for any important business activity requiring planning, such as a presentation or a big meeting. Possibly based on the natural tendency for ducklings to follow their mother in a row. Also fairground shooting galleries and arcade games have small metal or plastic ducks in a row of targets. I recently heard this idiom used at a business workshop in the British Consulate in Istanbul.

December 2014

Talk turkey

Meaning: To talk in a direct and straightforward way, about business or generally.

Example: The company’s sales are falling so it’s time to talk turkey with the team.

Origin: The large bird was discovered by the Spanish in Mexico in the 16th century and brought back to Europe where it soon became a favourite at Christmas. The word turkey is a shortening of the 'turkeycock' and 'turkeyhen', also the names of a type guinea-fowl imported from Africa via Turkey, and the bird’s name became confused with the country. The term turkey has also meant a failed project/product in the 20th century, as the bird was considered stupid.

November 2014

Up to scratch

Meaning: To meet the required standard.

Example: The food at that new restaurant simply isn’t up to scratch.

Origin: In organised bare-knuckle boxing in the 16th and 17th centuries a line was scratched in the ground where the two prize fighters had to face each other. A fighter who did not to come up to the scratch mark at the start of a round lost the contest because it showed he was not able to continue. The expression was originally 'up to the scratch'.

Bring nothing (or something) to the table

Meaning: Offering nothing (or something) of use or of interest.

Example: That company gets a lot of publicity but it brings nothing to the table as far as the country’s economy is concerned.

Origin: It is probably a shorter version of the phrase 'bring nothing (or something) to the negotiating table'.

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