From Ducks and Legs Up to Benchmarks and Best Worlds
Have you seen the La Quinta commercials, where the business person stays at the hotel & nails the business cliché the next day? Those are great. I love the one where the narrator says “Here’s a clue. He’s selling ice…” and the Eskimo cuts him off (“They don’t need a clue”). Very funny & effective.
I spent years in Big 5 consulting. So I’ve heard “at the end of the day,” “thinking outside the box” and “low-hanging fruit” enough times to last a lifetime. Some of the common business clichés made no sense to me. So I decided to do some research into the origins of some of the more common clichés:
- Do you have your ducks in a row? The best explanation for this seems to be from the world of duckpin bowling: the more squat pins which were popular before modern bowling. Prior to modern reset machines, the duckpins had to be manually put in a row. This metaphor therefore refers to being organized and having everything in its place.
- I hope that at least once in the last month, you’ve pulled out all the stops. This cliché seems to have come from the world of pipe organs, which have stops to control the airflow through the pipes. Pulling out a stop refers to no control of the pipe and therefore maximum volume.
- Surely you have a leg up on the competition, which derives from the world of sports as well. Helping an equestrian onto a horse involves giving them a leg up. Maybe this doesn’t create the greatest advantage initially but at least it positions the rider to compete.
- Getting the best of both worlds – or satisfying multiple conflicting if not impossible demands – comes from literature. The earliest reference comes from Voltaire in Candide, who rejected his mentor’s optimism and concluded, “… if this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?”
- Taking on a new project involves hitting the ground running. From the Boston Globe: “The earliest literal use cited in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1895 story published in several US newspapers. In one fantastic episode, the narrator outruns an assailant with a six-gun: “I knew he had five more cartridges, so I hit the ground running and squatted low down when his gun barked a second time.”
- All businesses measure themselves and their improvements using benchmarks. Originally benchmarking referred to the mark a surveyor establishes to use as a point of reference. It also refers to a carpenter using the surface of the workbench as a unit of measure.
- Finally, we frequently take things with a grain of salt. This means we’ll accept them but with a healthy degree of detachment or skepticism. According to English for Students, this goes back to Roman antiquity. Pliny the Elder, the ancient author & natural philosopher, translated an ancient antidote for poison with the words ‘be taken fasting, plus a grain of salt’. The idea comes from the fact that food is more easily consumed if taken with a small amount of salt.
Those are just a few of my favorites. Which ones annoy you the most?
- With a Grain of Salt (languageandtable.wordpress.com)