Dilys Parkinson, editor of the Oxford Business English Dictionary, looks at some of the weird and wonderful idioms in Business English. This article was originally published in Dialogue Magazine.
Picture the scene: you’re in a boardroom at a crisis meeting. The market is shrinking, profits are falling rapidly and jobs must go immediately. Staff need to be told. ‘So,’ someone asks. ‘Who’s going to shoot the puppy?’
‘Shoot the puppy’ (that is, do something terrible and shocking) is just one of the idioms now heard in the business world. Many of these idioms are not used very often in ‘everyday’ English, even by native speakers, so how important are these idioms for people studying English for their working lives? Do they belong in a Business English syllabus?
One could argue that they can be ignored, because the majority of business transactions are carried out between non-native speakers who simply won’t use them. On the other hand, many non-native speakers will certainly come into contact with native speakers who do use these expressions, and even more will come across them when they read newspapers, business magazines and journals in English.
To justify a place in any teaching material or dictionary, there must be evidence that these idioms really are used, so let’s see what corpus evidence there is. What do we ﬁnd in Oxford’s 45-million-word corpus of business language?
Unfortunately, perhaps, ‘shoot the puppy’ does not appear at all on this corpus. The nearest we can get to it is a novice entrepreneur being told that he has to be ‘willing to drown a puppy’. Nor are there any examples on the British National Corpus. An Internet search reveals that, although it is very frequent (about 33,000 citations), almost all refer to a computer game, while a few citations are related to a book, Shoot the Puppy, by Tony Thorne. It is very hard to ﬁnd many written examples of the term in use at the moment, but this could change.
Let’s look at some other business idioms that occur more frequently. Another dog-related one is ‘dog eat dog’ – a rather dramatic image. There are ten examples of its use on the British National Corpus. A quick look at the smaller Oxford Business English Corpus, however, shows eight examples, and that’s enough to justify inclusion in a dictionary. For example: ‘I’m afraid in this line of work it’s a case of dog eat dog’. And: ‘We’re operating in a dog-eat-dog world’.
It’s certainly a colourful way of describing the ﬁerce competition that there en is in the business world.
Many of the idioms used in the world of work are very clear and powerful. One of my favourites is ‘hit the ground running’, an idiom that comes from the idea of somebody jumping off a train, for example, and running off immediately. We often ﬁnd it in job advertisements – ‘We need people who can hit the ground running on day one’ – or in comments such as ‘Few executives hit the ground running in a new role’.
We can easily imagine a new manager or employee in their track shoes, jumping into their new ofﬁce and running around, getting things done very quickly. This idiom has 25 examples on the Oxford Business English Corpus, so is an important one to understand, as the example from a job advertisement shows.
What does all this mean, then, for people who are studying English for their working lives, and their trainers and teachers? From our corpus research at Oxford we have found that particular idioms are in fact commonly used in the business world, so people involved in Business English will meet them sooner or later. Some, such as ‘hit the ground running’, have or will also become part of our everyday language. So, while it may not be necessary to learn to use these expressions, learning the meaning of idioms should be an essential part of the study of Business English. A good dictionary, based on corpus research, will give guidance as to which ones are most useful.
‘Dead Cat Bounce’ to ‘Dog Eat Dog’ – welcome to the colourful world of business idioms
|Idiom||What is it / what does it mean?||Example||Where does it come from?|
|Have a foot in the door||To get an opportunity in a company, group, market, etc. that could bring you future success.||It may only be a low-level job, but at least it’s a foot in the door.||The door-to-door salesman tactic of using a foot to prevent a customer closing the door.|
|Learn the ropes||To learn how to do a new job correctly.||It’ll take me a couple of weeks to learn the ropes, but after that I’ll be fine.||Sailors being taught how to work the ropes that control the sails of a ship.|
|Red tape||Official rules that seem more complicated than necessary, and prevent things from being done quickly.|| Do you know how much red tape you have to cut through if
you want to import a car?
|The custom of tying red or pink tape around official documents.|
|Dog eat dog||Fierce competition, with little concern for harm done or people’s feelings.||The mobile phone market is very competitive – it’s dog eatdog out there.||A variation of the Latin proverb ‘dog does not eat dog’, or that a dog would not destroy its own kind.|
|Dead cat bounce||The small, temporary recovery in price/value that follows a large fall, but is then followed by another fall.||Traders described the stock market’s recovery as nothing more than a dead cat bounce.||A relatively new phrase which was invented in the 1980s to explain.|
|The lion’s share||The largest part of something that is being shared.||Thanks to some aggressive sales tactics, they now have the lion’s share of the market.||An old Greek fable about a lion who is helped by some other animals to kill a stag, but then refuses to share it with them and keeps it all.|
|Get the green light||To be allowed to begin something.||As soon as we get the green light, we’ll start the recruitment process.||Traffic lights – green means ‘go’.|
|Shoot the puppy
||To do something very unpleasant, to do the unthinkable.||I know no one wants to give them the bad news but we really can’t put it off any longer.||Someone has to shoot the puppy. The US television industry in the 1980s – it was a way of imagining what people would be prepared to do, just to appear on television.|