Want to do business in the U.S.? It helps to know the lingo — the idioms and slang that American businesspeople like to use.
“Business English has very vivid imagery and often a touch of black humor,” says Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, a prominent publisher of English-language dictionaries. “You can hear it in phrases such as ‘golden parachute’ [a large amount of money that a company pays to an executive being forced to leave] and ‘dead-cat bounce’ [a brief and insignificant recovery, as of stock prices, after a steep decline].”
Some American business phrases make it out of the boardroom and into everyday conversation. These nine examples come from the business world but are also used in everyday conversations and on TV.
In business: Many buildings are made out of bricks held together by mortar. In contrast to those selling online, brick-and-mortar businesses operate in buildings and sell to customers face-to-face.
In conversation: “That company doesn’t have brick-and-mortar stores, but it promises next-day delivery.”
In business: “Buy-in” refers to someone’s support and willingness to participate in a business venture.
In conversation: “Without buy-in from José, we won’t be able to go to the concert — he’s the only one with a car.”
In business: Something a customer can buy without needing it custom-made is “off-the shelf.”
In conversation: “I’m lucky — off-the-shelf shirts fit me almost as well as tailored shirts.”
In business: For many U.S. businesses, the workday begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m.
In conversation: “She quit the nine-to-five life to become a singer in a hip-hop group.”
In business: A pink slip is dismissal from your job — the same as getting fired. Legend has it that some companies used pink slips in an employee’s paycheck envelope to let the employee know he or she didn’t need to come back.
In conversation: “They’d been dating for two months before she gave her boyfriend the pink slip.”
In business: A company’s bottom line is its net earnings: the amount of money brought in less expenses. It is the final or most important result.
In conversation: “I don’t need to hear about your whole day — just give me the bottom line: Can you come out tonight or not?”
Blue collar/white collar
In business: “Blue collar” refers to the durable clothing of workers doing physical labor. “White collar” describes the dress clothes worn by office workers and professionals.
In conversation: “His last blue-collar job was before he went to university. Since then he’s had only white-collar jobs.”
Corner the market
In business: To corner the market means to control so much of a commodity that you can artificially manipulate its price. More broadly, to corner the market means to control the supply of something.
In conversation: “He thinks he’s cornered the market in clever ideas, but I have lots of them, too.”
In the red/in the black
In business: Accountants traditionally use red ink to record losses in their ledgers and black ink to record gains. So if your business is “in the red,” you’re losing more money than you’re making.
In conversation: “I was in the red after all my holiday shopping. I won’t be in the black until I get my next paycheck.”
Other resources for learning English
The American English resource center and the American English page on Facebook can help you master conversational English. The Voice of America offers news stories, podcasts, and other free tools that help students of different levels.