We’ve all been there. Someone insults us, and we turn away to leave. On our way down the staircase, we think of a stinging retort—but it is too late to deliver it! The French call this esprit de l'escalier, or "wit of the staircase."
I wish English had such an idiom.
What’s good about idioms?
Idioms can be fun. They are sayings that have a different meaning than the literal denotation of the words. They provide a quick shorthand between people of a given dialect or experience or age group. Here are some of our favorite regional idioms:
- Bang a uey: Make a U-turn. “Up here, bang a uey!”
- Down cellar: In the basement. “Put the boxes down cellar.”
- Right out straight: Very busy. “Can’t come. I’m right out straight.”
- Stoved up: Broken, extremely messed up. “My bike got stoved up in the garage.”
- No suh/yah huh: No way/absolutely. “That’s my ride? No suh!” “Yah huh!!”
- Living in high cotton: Successful, prosperous. “Since the new rollout, we’re living in high cotton.”
- Catawampus: Messed up, in the wrong orientation. “Your priorities are catawampus.”
- Bless your heart: You are an idiot. “Trying to parallel park a mobile home. Bless your heart.”
- Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine: Blissfully ignorant of peril. “He went to the meeting happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.”
- If I had my druthers. If I got what I prefer. “If I had my druthers, this meeting would’ve been over an hour ago.”
- You betcha! I completely agree. “It’s hot today.” “You betcha!”
- Uffda! I’m overwhelmed and exhausted. “Thirteen-hour drive. Uffda!”
- Ope! Sorry, I made a mistake. “Ope! That’s the wrong folder.”
- Jeez louise. I’m annoyed. “Jeez louise, could you wait just one minute?”
- Fair to middlin’. Feeling pretty good. “My back’s fair to middlin’ today.”
- Fit to be tied. Very angry. “When he saw the sales figures, he was fit to be tied.”
- Get a wiggle on. Hurry. “Those reports are due at close of business. Get a wiggle on!”
- Pull in your horns. Back off. “You’re out of line. You better pull in your horns.”
- That dog won’t hunt. That idea won’t work. “Cut prices and raise quality? That dog won’t hunt!”
- Hella. Very, extremely. “It’s hella foggy today.”
- The mountain is out. Mount Rainier is visible (usually above the clouds). “The rain stopped and the mountain is out.”
- Spendy. Expensive. “That restaurant is spendy.”
- Potlatch. Potluck, or big meal. “Saturday, we’re going to a potlatch.”
- Duff. Humus; decaying vegetable matter. “The duff there was a foot deep.”
What’s not good about idioms?
While idioms can be entertaining, they can also be baffling for people from a different background. In fact, much of our daily conversation is peppered with idioms that we don’t even recognize:
- “That project cost us an arm and a leg.” It cost us what?
- “The ball is in their court.” What ball? What court?
- “The boss got up on the wrong side of the bed.” How do you know?
- “I didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag.” What cat? What bag?
Even casual use of such idioms can confuse English language learners. (It can “throw them for a loop.”) If you are learning the language, take some time to study common English idioms. You’ll understand much more of what people say (and sometimes write) in business.
If you are a native English speaker, avoid idioms unless you are speaking to a group that would understand them. To communicate well to a broad audience, cut the idioms.
What about slang?
Slang is perhaps even more problematic because it is so transitory. A trendy expression one year will seem archaic the next.
One of my teenage sons said something mildly disparaging to me at the dinner table, and I replied, “Don’t toss shadows at me.” Well, I’d gotten the slang sort of right. It should have been “Don’t throw shade at me.” My sons thought my gaffe was hilarious and started to use “toss shadows” with their friend group.
I was trying to use their slang to fit in, but that’s the whole point of slang—to define those who are in and those who are out. As soon as I understood the expression, they stopped using it and instead used a version that kept me out. And here, a few years later, nobody is throwing shade or tossing shadows.
So keep your business writing timeless by using clear, plain English without idioms, slang, or business jargon.