Popular Business Idioms and Their Origin

Popular Business Idioms and Their Origin


How many times are terms such as ‘raise the bar’ and ‘keeping your cards close to your chest’ used in business? Plenty of times is the answer, but have you ever wondered where those business idioms come from? If you like your informative business news, read on and discover their origins.

It’s important in business to ‘meet a deadline’ but that term didn’t originate in an office. We must go back to the American Civil War for its origin. Prisoners were kept in camps but there was one problem, a distinct lack of fencing.

The solution was to simply draw a line on the ground and woe betide any prisoner who crossed that line. The penalty was to be shot dead, hence, ‘deadline’. Thankfully these days, failure to ‘meet a deadline’ usually just results in you being sacked.

Do you play poker? If so, you’ll be familiar with the term ‘keeping your cards close to your chest’. No poker player wants their opponents to know what cards they have. Revealing them would likely cost them a hand and lots of money. Therefore, do all you can to keep them secret, which is often needed in business too. The game has been popular for hundreds of years, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that well-known poker terms have made their way into everyday business language.

Can you keep a secret or do you ‘let the cat out of the bag’? Confidentiality is essential in business but the origin of this term doesn’t just involve cats; piglets play a key role too.

Popular Business Idioms and Their Origin

The term comes from the 1700s, when it was common to sell piglets at street markets. They were placed in bags, and some unscrupulous sellers put cats in the bag rather than piglets. To see ‘the cat let out of the bag’ revealed the truth about what you were being asked to buy.

If you want to have a business growth and be successful in business, it’s said that you need to ‘pull out all the stops’. Do absolutely everything that you can to ensure your business venture is a success. But where did the term come from?

Those of you who are musicians may well know the answer. That’ll be especially the case if you happen to play the organ. Pulling out all the stops will allow the organ to play all the sounds it’s capable of simultaneously. You’ll know just when that has happened because the volume will become extremely loud.

Musicians have most likely heard of the song ‘I heard it on the Grapevine.’ In business, that has been shortened to ‘hear on the grapevine.’ It’s got nothing to do with Marvin Gaye, who had a massive hit with that song.

The term refers to some information that someone has told you. It originates from 1840s America when the telegraph was invented. That made communication so much easier than before. Word-of-mouth communication was referred to as ‘on the grapevine.’

Why the grapevine? Those who were living in the poorer and rural communities made what money they had on working on the land. They compared the wires that were used for telegraphs with the tendrils of the grapevine plant.

Do you believe everything that you’re told? There may be some untrustworthy clients who tell you false information. You ‘take it with a grain of salt’ and prefer to remain unconvinced by the information you are being given.

This term has been with us since 77AD and the days of the Roman Empire. It came from Pliny the Elder who told people how he had used his translation skills to find an ancient cure for poison. He told people that it should be swallowed with ‘a grain of salt.’ His implication was that any bad effects could be treated by taking a ‘grain of salt.’

idioms about business

The final business term we’ll explain comes from the sporting world. It may be that your business is doing well, but it can do a lot better. The company needs to ‘raise the bar’ to see that improvement take place.

Athletics fans will recognise the term from the pole vault and the high jump. The aim is to jump as high as you can to be the winner. As each round progresses, the officials ‘raise the bar’ to an increased height. Can the competitors successfully get over the new height without knocking the bar over?

Next time you are at work and either told to raise the bar but not let the cat out of the bag, you’ll know just where those business idioms originated.


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