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Body Idioms in Business

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We use idioms all the time in English, and this includes Business English. Very often, they are grouped around certain themes, such as means of transport, e.g. “…off the rails“, “…on the road“, and “…in train“. One of the greatest sources of such idioms, however, is the human body.



  • On one hand/…the other hand
Expresses contrast

  • On one hand, PCs are easier than Apple products to use; on the other hand, Apple Macs are not prone to viruses.
  • To have a hand in…
To share part responsibility for something or to influence some event

  • Foreign banks may have had a hand in the current state of the economy
  • Mr Owens, the new HR manager, had a big hand in the company’s new approach to hiring
  • To give a hand
To give assistance

  • Ramona and Oana are very busy at the moment; I think I will give them a hand, so they can get the job done faster
  • You’ve got to hand it to …
To give credit to someone you don’t necessarily like

  • I don’t especially like Ms Moffat, the accountant, and her obsession with expenses, but you have to hand it to her, she has managed to get the company’s finances under control”
  • Caught red-handed
Caught in the middle of doing something wrong

  • The thieves were caught red-handed when the owner walked in
  • Point the finger
To blame

  • When the company fails, everyone will point the finger at the managing director
  • Have a finger in every pie
To be involved in many different projects and ventures

  • Everywhere Investments Ltd. have a finger in every pie: they’re into everything from food manufacturing to IT and children’s toys
  • To finger (somebody)
To recognize the guilty person

  • For a while, the restaurant was losing money, although it was always packed. Somebody must have been stealing, and eventually a number of waiters were fingered by a private investigator
  • Lift a finger
To make minimal effort

  • “You know, the two of them are so lazy, they wouldn’t lift a finger”
  • Thumbs up
To express approval

  • “Hey, thumbs up, you’re doing a great job”
  • Keep one’s thumb/finger on the pulse
To track some ongoing activities very closely

  • Some people say the CEO is a micro manager, while others see him as a guy who likes to keep his finger on the pulse
  • Caught with (one’s) fingers in the till
To be caught in the act of stealing

  • After the fraud police set a trap, the crooked accountant was caught with his fingers in the till
  • Knuckle down to (a task)
Start seriously addressing a task or working hard

  • “Oh my God, it’s almost 2pm; I’ve been having lunch for almost two hours! I’d better knuckle down to some work!”
  • A rap on the knuckles / slap on the wrist
A reprimand

  • The Romanian minister for finance was recently given a rap on the knuckles by the IMF, because he was seen as managing the country’s finances irresponsibly
  • Elbow one’s way in(to)…
To apply a lot of pressure in order to force your way into something

  • Daniel is very forceful, and always elbows his way into every project
  • The cold shoulder
To ignore something or somebody

  • Cheesy Crunch, the new breakfast cereal, was given the cold shoulder by consumers
  • A shot in the arm
A sudden input of assistance, usually financial

  • Bankroop Ltd had big cash-flow problems for some time, but they were given a shot in the arm by some foreign investors who saw the potential in the market
  • Have the stomach
Have courage or desire for conflict

  • I’m not sure that Koky Cola has the stomach for a big expensive battle with Beb-Z on the Romanian soft drinks market.
  • Get a leg up
To be assisted in either getting promotion or gaining a market share

  • Bill got a leg up in the company when his uncle bought shares, and now he is a senior manager
  • Kulair air conditioning systems got a big leg up in the Romanian market after the hot summer.
  • Be on one’s knees
To be in a very weak and vulnerable situation

  • The lack of credit availability has brought the construction industry to its knees
  • A knee-jerk reaction
An impulsive reaction, without thinking

  • Increasing taxes was a knee-jerk reaction by the government to protests about poor health-care
  • Step on one (one’s) toes
To cause problems for or seriously offend someone

  • He’s not popular in the company, because he has stepped on a lot of people’s toes. Last week, he told the boss he was an idiot!
  • Keep (someone) on their toes
Keep people busily engaged

  • There’s no room for sitting around in that office, and everyone is kept on their toes from dawn to dusk.
  • Toe the line
Follow the rules carefully, and not be rebellious in any way

  • The job is well-paid, but the rules are tough and if you don’t toe the line, you’re out!
  • Dig (one’s) heels in
Take a stubborn approach, with no flexibility

  • When the staff threatened to go on strike for a wage increase, management dug their heels in and refused to pay any more.
  • Turn on (one’s) heel
To make a quick exit/walk away

  • When the government increased corporation tax, many multinationals turned on their heel and left the country
  • The boss refused his request for a pay raise, so he just turned on his heel and resigned
  • Sit on (one’s) bottom
To do no work or make no effort

  • I hate going to that office, because no-one helps and they all just sit on their bottoms all day.
  • Scratch each other’s back
To give mutual assistance

  • “OK, we will promote your products in Bucharest, if you give us more publicity in Cluj; I think it’s only fair we scratch each other’s back on this!”
  • Get (one’s) backs up
To really annoy someone / become unpopular

  • The new boss has really got people’s back up by making them work longer hours.
  • On the back of…
To succeed as a result of some external factors or at someone else’s expense.

  • Loan sharks have been doing well on the back of the recession
  • Our IT company has done well on the back of the increase in internet speed.
  • The boss got a lot of credit for a good job, but it was all really on the back of his assistant who did most of it.
  • Eye up
To look at something with a possible view to its acquisition

  • Donald Trump has been eyeing up some office buildings in Bucharest.
  • Keep an eye out for
Maintain a low-level lookout for something, usually an opportunity

  • I’ve lost my pen – can you keep an eye out for it around the office?”
  • “I’m always keeping an eye out for new opportunities, so if you hear of anything, let me know”.
  • Keep an eye on…
Watch something or someone closely

  • “I think we should keep an eye on the new recruit, because he is very inexperienced and we don’t want him making mistakes, do we?”
  • To have a nose for
To possess a good instinct for successful measures or strategies

  • “You know, everywhere they go, Getrich Ltd makes money; they seem to have an excellent nose for a good opportunity”
  • To nose around
Search around a location, e.g. an office, looking for something even when not welcome

  • The restaurant owner wasn’t happy, because some food inspectors were nosing around his kitchen.
  • To keep one’s nose clean
To avoid getting into trouble or developing a bad reputation

  • “If you want to win that government contract, you’d better keep your nose clean; and hint of a problem, and you won’t get it”
  • Our lips are sealed!
A promise of confidentiality

  • “Please don’t tell anyone about this.”
  • “Oh, don’t worry, my lips are sealed!”
  • To mouth off
To talk more than one should, usually giving away secret information or information no-one should hear.

  • The boss was very annoyed at the accountant, when she heard he was mouthing off to everyone down at the pub how much money the company was making.

  • To have a lot of neck
To be courageous (positive) or very disrespectful and forceful

  • It took some neck to launch that product on the market, but their bravery was rewarded.
  • Jim has a lot of neck, and he will often walk into a board meeting unannounced and uninvited.
  • To get (your) teeth into (something)
To take on a project into which you put a lot of energy; to take up a challenge

  • Joe was given a new project in Iraq to get his teeth into, and now he’s in Baghdad enjoying the challenge.
  • A kick in the teeth
A serious, often humiliating or damaging blow

  • Losing their top position in the fast-food market would be a real kick in the teeth to McDonald’s
  • Have a word in (one’s) ear
Have an informal, often confidential discussion

  • “You’ve done great work, and I plan to have a quiet word in the MD’s ear about getting you a pay-raise.”
  • Keep an ear out for…
Listen out for a piece of news, usually about an opportunity

  • “Our IT company needs new staff, and I wonder if you would keep an ear out for any programmers looking for a job”
  • Stay out of (one’s) hair
To avoid coming into (usually unpleasant) contact with someone

  • “She’s in a bad mood today, so I’d stay out of her hair if I were you!”
  • Get it into your head
Try to understand something

  • “Please get it into your head, there will be no pay increase this year!”
  • Get it out of your head
Forget the idea of something

  • We had to get the idea of expansion out of our heads, because it was too risky a market”
  • In over your head
Involved to an unhealthy extent

  • They borrowed a lot of money to fund the expansion, which was unsuccessful, and are now in over their heads in debt.
  • Face off

  • McRonald’s and FKC are now getting ready for a face-off to see who will dominate the Romanian fast-food market
  • In (one’s) face
Very forceful and unsubtle

  • “I don’t like their salesmen, because they’re always in your face hoping you can’t say No”
  • To have egg on (one’s) chin
To be embarrassed

  • After being reprimanded by the Advertising Standards Authority for a tasteless ad campaign, they were left with considerable egg on their chin
  • Head off (the competition)
Put up a resistance; fight off

  • McRonald’s is hoping to head off FKC with their new low-fat range
  • Head up
To lead, to be in charge of something

  • Meet Dorel Irinescu – he heads up our new Bucharest division

© Mike Waters 2012