Business Jargon and Idioms: Learning A Second Language – Again!

As anyone who has spent time in either the boardroom or the back office can tell you, the English language takes on some unusual forms in the business world. Business English not only contains words or phrases that appear nowhere else in the language but also includes words that take on radically new meanings in a corporate context. Take, for example, the word “margin.” Taken by itself the word refers to the blank areas at the edges of a piece of paper. When put in a business context, however, margin takes on a whole new meaning: that of profit margins. While the two definitions make it is possible to have “slim margins” in both the classroom and the boardroom, the correct meaning is revealed only by context. Nor is this an isolated case: even some of the most familiar-looking words, like angel (an early investor), have a special meaning in the business world. Given this – and the importance of English in global business – we might go so far to say that context is more than key – it is king.

 Jargon and Idioms

What, then, is a non-native English speaker to do? In a word, practice. It is important to understand that not only do some common words have different meanings in the world of big business but also there are entire phrases that take on entirely new meanings in that special environment. These words and phrases are known as jargon and idioms.


Jargon is, basically, slang with a twist. Like slang it is inherently an informal set of words and phrases that have a special meaning when used between members of a particular group of people. That is why

  • a barnburner is a great success,
  • a bottleneck is a slowdown,
  • a win-win is a success for everyone.

What makes jargon different from slang is context. Unlike slang, jargon is appropriate to use in the workplace (although not necessarily in formal correspondence or presentations). Like slang, however, jargon is not quite optional. Although it is possible to be understood without either, because it is commonly used by people at work, in order to be able to communicate effectively, non-native speakers should work to learn the jargon for their particular industry.


Idioms are similar to slang and jargon in that they are contained words that cannot be translated directly but differ in that they are typically much lengthier and occasionally grammatically irregular. That is to say an idiom is a fixed expression whose meaning is best predicted not from its parts but from its contexts – and for better or worse the corporate world uses a lot of them! For example, in business people

  • don’t work harder, they “take it up a notch”
  • don’t discuss important issues, they “talk shop”
  • don’t work late, they “burn the midnight oil”
  • don’t feel included, they “are one of the team”

… and it can all seem overwhelming at first! Unfortunately, these phrases are as important to your success as they are daunting. While idioms outside the workplace might simply make you sound more natural, because business idioms are part of the common language used by people in a common endeavor to communicate industry-specific ideas, without it non-native speakers might find it difficult to express their thoughts or understand those of their colleagues!

It is with this in mind that we have created this series on business jargon and idioms. While general idioms remains just as useful – indeed, idioms are almost mandatory – as ever, business idioms special deserve special attention because they are the kind of phrases that are used every day in the business world. Although they might sound a little out of place on the weekend, they are perfectly suited for just about any professional environment. Although it might seem a little intimidating at first, practice makes perfect and, in no time you will feel like “one of the team!”