I’ve been thinking about how we create barriers to understanding because of our language patterns and habits.

Lately, I’ve worked with scientists and engineers from around the world. My workshops have had participants from China, Columbia, France, India, Sweden, United Kingdom, Ukraine and, of course, the United States.

As our business environments include people with diverse backgrounds, and our customers and vendors are worldwide, one thing is startlingly clear – the ability to communicate clearly and to understand each other is crucial and can be difficult.

I’d like to call your attention to our penchant in the United States for using idioms in our conversations.

n 1: a manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers of a language 2: the usage or vocabulary that is characteristic of a specific group of people

As our national past-time involves sporting events, sports idioms have infiltrated our business communications. In this article, I’ll take a look at our preoccupation with sports and other common business idioms.

First, a couple of questions.

1. Why is the World Series in baseball called the World Series?
The answer: In 1884, the Providence Grays of the National League outplayed the New York Metropolitan Club of the American Association in a three game series for what was originally called "The Championship of the United States." Several newspapers penned the Grays as "World Champions" and the new title stuck.

2. What sport is played and watched by the most people in the world? The answer: Football - however, only in the United States is the game referred to as soccer. Outside the United States, the sport is commonly called football, or futbol in Spanish-speaking countries, where the game is particularly popular. The "Encyclopedia of World Sport" says that more men and women play and watch soccer worldwide than any other sport.

Sports Idioms at Work

Here is a fictional conversation full of idioms taken from sports. In the repeat of the conversation that follows, the idioms are highlighted and explained. I thank Kenneth Beare at All About ESL for his witty over-the-top (idiom) fictional conversation. See the links at the end of this article for Kenneth’s site and other resources.

Closing a Deal Scenario

In a typical office somewhere in New York:

Bob: Well, is Trevisos going to play ball or are we going to strike out on this deal?

Pete: The latest locker talk is that our game plan is a real contender for the contract.

Bob: Yeah, the other team has two strikes against it after they fumbled last week.

Pete: They had a great chance of scoring but I think Trevisos thought they weren't up to scratch on some of the details.

Now, here’s the conversation with the idioms highlighted and defined:

Bob: Well, is Trevisos going to play ball (baseball-play a game, idiom-do business with) or are we going to strike out (baseball-go out, idiom-fail) on this deal (idiom-contract)?

Pete: The latest locker talk (general sports-talk among the players, idiom-gossip, rumors) is that our game plan (American football-plan which plays to make, idiom-plan of action) is a real contender (boxing- very possible winner, idiom-person with a good chance of success) for the contract.

Bob: Yeah, the other team has two strikes against it (baseball-one step from going out or loosing, idiom-close to not succeeding) after they fumbled (American football-lost possession of the ball, idiom-make a serious mistake) last week.

Pete: They had a great chance of scoring (any sport-to make a point, idiom-to succeed) but I think Trevisos thought they weren't up to scratch (horseracing-not capable of winning, idiom-not having the right qualities) on some of the details.


Next, we’ll transition to some common animal idioms you might hear around the office:

As blind as a bat - blind
I have to put on my glasses before I even get out of bed. I’m blind as a bat.

As busy as a beaver - very busy
I have been as busy as a beaver all morning trying to finish my work.

I’ve never heard this one used, though I think I’ll see if I can start a trend, it’s pretty darn funny! -

As awkward as a cow on roller skates - very awkward
The little girl was as awkward as a cow on roller skates when she first began riding a bicycle.

As crooked as a dog's hind leg- dishonest
The politician was as crooked as a dog's hind leg and everybody disliked him.

And, here’s one that combines a sporting event with an animal!

Back the wrong horse- support someone or something that cannot win or succeed
We were backing the wrong horse when we decided to support the new candidate for mayor.

Lastly, here are some that are business related:

To have the floor- to have permission to speak in a meeting
The president had the floor for almost an hour during the meeting.

To lay (something) on the table- to present a matter for discussion
I went to the meeting and laid all of my concerns about the new product on the table.

And, now to be even more confusing – let’s use the same word and give it a different meaning:

To table a discussion- to postpone a discussion until a later time
We tabled the discussion about the salary decrease until the next meeting.

By now I’m sure that you’ve gotten the point that our everyday language is full of idioms!

When you are developing a new presentation, you might want to take into consideration that others may have difficulty understanding your content if you use a lot of idioms in your speech.

I challenge you to become more aware of the words and phrases that you use to communicate everyday and important information. If you want to communicate clearly – you might need to start filtering out the idioms that make your communication difficult or confusing for your colleagues, customers, and other audiences who are non-native English speakers.

Online resources and sources for this article:

Idiom Connection: http://www.idiomconnection.com/sports.html

Sports Idioms: http://esl.about.com/library/weekly/aa111697.htm

ESL Idiom Page: http://www.eslcafe.com/idioms/id-list.html

Idiom Dictionary: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/

Baseball Info: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/ws/wsmenu.shtml

Football Info: http://www.soccer-411.com

Note: If you do a Google search on “idiom” Google shows about 5,940,000 sites

Author's Bio: 

DANA BRISTOL-SMITH founded Speak for Success in 2001. She is a professional speaker and trainer who has survived stage fright and has a deep desire to help others get past the fears and discomfort of public speaking. Her expertise has helped professionals in senior management, sales, engineering, marketing, human resources, and training. She provides skill building in-house workshops, public seminars, and one-on-one coaching. For more communication articles, please visit: www.speakforsuccess.net