101 Business Idioms from The Wall Street Journal to Boost Your ESL Skills and to Gain Language Fluency

It’s amazing how many idioms are used in the business world every day. You might have heard some of these before. You might have used some idioms, too. Hopefully this article will help you feel more confident in both understanding idioms and in using more of these words in your daily speech. You might want to set a goal for yourself to read through so many of these each day. Or you might have a goal to use so many idioms during a certain time period. Maybe you want to try to use a different idiom each day. This will help your ESL fluency. You might even have a few idioms of your own that you would like to share. Oh, I almost forgot, there’s another article on business idioms you might want to check out. It was posted awhile ago.

It’s time to begin. Here are 101 business idioms most commonly used (and listed in alphabetical order for your convenience) from The Wall Street Journal. This unparalleled business, financial and world newspaper claims they have the “news you want” and the “insight you need”. I’m thinking that these idioms are what you want and this article brings you the insight you need for your ESL progress.

  1. A full plate - a lot of work to do or problems to deal with - The company accountant had a full plate completing the income tax forms by the deadline.
  2. Angel investor - an investor who provides financial backing for small startups or entrepreneurs - Mr. Jones pitched his new business and an angel investor decided to invest.
  3. At arm’s length – a distance discouraging personal contact or familiarly - We kept the competitor of our business at arm’s length.
  4. Bad egg – a worthless, untrustworthy person - The new sales agent was a bad egg and deliberately lied to the customer.
  5. Bang for the buck – value for money; performance for cost - Time Warner Cable, Co. gave more bang for the buck to the customer by bundling prices for their television, video and phone services.
  6. Belt tightening – the introduction of rigorous reductions in spending - When demand for computers decreased, the computer company had to do some belt tightening.
  7. Bitter pill to swallow – bad new; something unpleasant to accept - After working long hours and not getting paid for overtime, the secretary found it a bitter pill to swallow.
  8. Blank check – complete freedom of action or control - The millionaire CEO funded the product research with a blank check.
  9. Blew it all - to spoil your chance of achieving something because of what you say or do - The marketing director spent his entire budget; he blew it all on digital advertising.
  10. Bounce back – to return to a good condition; to recover from a blow or defeat - The stock market will hopefully bounce back in the new year.
  11. Breadwinner - one whose earnings are the primary source of support for one's dependents - Maria was the breadwinner in her family and chose work at the company that paid the most.
  12. Bring home the bacon - to earn a living, especially for a family; to achieve desired results; have success - David was bringing home the bacon when his boss doubled his salary for being such a devoted employee.
  13. Bullish on – optimistic about a market often used when describing investors - The stock analyst knew that the electric company’s stock was a great investment. Soon all of his clients were bullish on this stock.
  14. Caught red-handed – seen doing something illegal or private; caught in the act - The bank clerk was caught red-handed stealing from the bank.
  15. Can’t quite get my fingers on it – I can’t quite figure it out or it’s difficult to understand - Even though the benefit package was explained to the new employee, he couldn’t quite get his fingers on it.
  16. Come to think of it – I just remembered - “Come to think of it, I didn’t sign up for the company holiday party.”
  17. Compare apples to oranges – compare two unlike things to make an invalid comparison - You really shouldn’t think that sales in a rural area would equal sales in some of the largest urban regions of the world. That’s like comparing apples to oranges.
  18. Compare apples to apples – compare two similar things - In exploring options for expanding the company, the Board of Directors hired different architects to compare apples to apples about the cost of the expansion.
  19. Corporate ladder – stages or structure of moving up in a large company or business - Although he just graduated from college a few years ago, he already was targeted in the company to climb the corporate ladder quite quickly.
  20. Corporate raider - a financier who makes a practice of making hostile takeover bids for companies, either to control their policies or to resell them for a profit - Our company was not doing as well as expected, so the corporate raider offered a purchase price.
  21. Cost a pretty penny - to be expensive - The addition of the exercise room and the 24/7 café cost a pretty penny for the company.
  22. Crunch some numbers – do the math and calculations - The management was told to crunch some numbers to see about employee raises this year.
  23. Down and out – poor; without hope - Although the agency seemed down and out, it had offered so many wonderful services to the community.
  24. Down on my luck – have had a bad experience; often because there is little money - I had gone to my fifth interview this week with no offers. It seemed like I sure was down on my luck.
  25. Down to the wire – unsettled to the very end; neck and neck - She worked down to the wire on the grant proposal to finish in time.
  26. Fallout – consequences; bad results of a situation - The fallout of the new management was not accepted very well by the former employees.
  27. Fast track a project – make priority; speed up the time frame - The boss said that we need to fast track the construction project and finish before winter.
  28. Filthy rich – very rich - The owner of that fast food franchise is filthy rich.
  29. Get off to a flying start - to begin an activity very successfully - The new marketing campaign got off to a flying start and sales increased.
  30. Give him a big hand – to give a round of applause - The manager said to give him a big hand because he initiated the company merger.
  31. Glass ceiling - an unofficially acknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities - It seemed difficult to break through the glass ceiling, until more and more of the immigrant
  32. Got off on the wrong foot - to begin doing something in a way that is likely to fail - The telemarketing idea got off on the wrong foot and soon it was disband.
  33. Have a gut feeling - to begin doing something in a way that is likely to fail - The personnel manager had a gut feeling that the older man would be an asset to the company.
  34. Head something off at the pass – to stop something from happening - The President of the company anticipated a lawsuit so he headed it off at the pass by offering a substitute product and some monetary compensation.
  35. Hold purse strings - to control the spending of a family's or an organization's money - The profits had gone down this past month so the boss said to hold the purse strings until company profits picked up.
  36. In the doghouse – in disfavor or grace - The project was not finished in time and the manager treated the computer technician as if he were in the doghouse.
  37. It’s a gold mine – very valuable - That new stock turned out to be a gold mine!
  38. It’s a rip-off – act of exploitation; a product or service that is overpriced or of poor quality - I bought the new protection plan which turned out to be a rip-off.
  39. It’s a steal – a bargain - The department store featured 50% of all of its merchandise over the weekend. It’s a steal!
  40. Keep everyone on their toes  - alert; energetic - The new supervisor liked to keep everyone on their toes to increase work production.
  41. Keep our heads above water - to manage to survive, especially financially; to keep up with one’s work - In this economy, the hotel chain tried to keep their heads above water. They added an outdoor patio in hopes to attract more customers.
  42. Money to burn - to have a lot of money to spend on things that are not necessary - The manager had a lot of money to burn so he redecorated his office.
  43. Monopoly money - money that seems to have little or no value - My brother who owns a prosperous company bought a round of drinks for everyone at the company party. He spent money as if it were monopoly money.
  44. My gut tells me – have a strong feeling that my intuition tells me - My gut tells me that we should go ahead with the project.
  45. No BS – no bullshit (opposite of BS); this is a casual comment but it should not be said in more formal situations as it can be seen as derogatory - There was no BS with the boss; he wanted to just say it as it was. He preferred “straight to the point” discussions.
  46. On good ground – safe with; having big consequences; large in scope; great - We were on good ground with the adjacent company.
  47. On top of trends – aware and responding to what’s current - We hired someone to keep on top of trends so our company could be competitive.
  48. Out of line with - not consistent with; not at the same level as - If your pay is out of line with your peers' pay, it's time to make an appointment with the boss.
  49. Pay through the nose – to pay too much for everything - If you bought the paper you would pay through the nose; it’s best you order it online and use that coupon.
  50. Pay top dollar – to pay a lot of money for something - The customer paid top dollar for the new car with all of the gadgets.
  51. Pick your brains - obtain information by questioning someone who is better informed about a subject than oneself - There was a brainstorming session to pick everyone’s brains for a new name for the company.
  52. Play it by ear - to do something by feel and instinct rather than with a plan, to improvise - The meeting would be held on Thursday or Friday but we would have to play it by ear.
  53. Price skyrocketed  - increases quickly to a very high level or amount - The real estate prices seem to have skyrocketed this past year.
  54. Pull the wool over their eyes – to deceive - Working there is quite different. It seems like the interviewer pulled the wool over my eyes during the interview process. Now it seems so different.
  55. Put money in your mouth - to support something that you believe in, especially by giving money - The company donated their services and raised funds as an example of what the community should do in time of need. They put money in their mouth, that’s for sure.
  56. Quick buck - quick or easy earnings; same as “fast buck” - They are stock traders out to make a quick buck.
  57. Reality check – to think realistically about the situation - Let’s have a reality check and see if the company needs to cut back on its employees’ hours as the profits are just not there.
  58. Red tape - obstructive official routine or procedure; time-consuming bureaucracy - In order to get permission to expand the project, there was a lot of red tape to go through. All of those phone calls and meetings were really exhausting.
  59. Rule of thumb - a useful principle having wide application but not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable in every situation - The general rule of thumb was to wear more casual clothes on Fridays.
  60. Scale back – reduce the number of hours or the size of the project, etc. - I wanted to scale back my hours on the weekend so I could spend more time at home.
  61. Scratch someone’s back – to do something for someone with the intent that he/she does something for you - I will scratch your back, if you scratch mine. In other words, I’ll put a good word in for you this time, and when it’s my turn to lead the project, you do the same. Okay?
  62. Selling like hotcakes – to sell quickly and in large numbers - The new laptops were selling like hotcakes!
  63. Short on cash – having little or a small amount of money - I was short on cash and asked if I could borrow some money from my friend for lunch.
  64. Sparks fly / make sparks fly / when sparks fly – interaction that becomes heated or lively - You should have seen the sparks fly at the meeting with the heads of the department! Wow, no one seemed to agree.
  65. Spent a fortune – to spend a large amount of money - It seems like they spent a fortune on the company picnic. There were door prizes, entertainment and great food.
  66. Splashed out – to spend a lot of money on things that are usually not necessary to have but are luxuries - He wanted to win the advertising account so he splashed out money to try to persuade them.
  67. Stinking rich – very rich - The owner passed on his company and stock to his daughter. Imagine being that stinking rich!
  68. Test the waters – to try it; to experiment - I thought I would test the waters with this design first. Then it can always be expanded or altered, etc.
  69. Thick-skinned – insensitive to criticism; usually unoffended - The salesman was thick-skinned and used to others complaining about his products.
  70. Throw in the towel – to quit; to give up - I decide to throw in the towel and take a new job. It was just too demanding of my time.
  71. Time on your hands – to have time - The student had time on his hands to do extra reading.
  72. To beat someone to – to do something before somebody else has a chance - He beat me to winning the contract.
  73. To be hit hard by – to suffer losses due to something - We were all hit hard by the recent recession.
  74. To clamp down on – to get strict about - The company added a new policy to clamp down on the abuse of overtime.
  75. To come up with – to think of - I don’t know who came up with the idea of a company breakfast once a month, but it sure seems like fun!
  76. To drop the ball - to make a mistake; to fail to perform one's responsibilities - The student dropped the ball and his final project was not that well done.
  77. To get ahead – to advance in one's career - The workers who want to get ahead try to stay on task during the day without much interruption.
  78. To get wind of - to find out about something often a secret - I got wind of the new supervisory position and decided to apply for it.
  79. To go private – to remove a company from the stock exchange so it is once again owned by private investors; the reverse process of “going public” in which a company lists itself on the stock exchange - The Board of Directors voted to go private and sent out a letter to possible investors.
  80. To have seen better days – to be in a period of decline or slow sales - The video store has seen better days; fewer people are renting store videos.
  81. To keep under wraps - to keep secret - We're going to give Susan a 20% pay increase next month, but let's keep that under wraps for now.
  82. To lay out a plan - to present a plan - We need to lay out a plan for the company’s growth for the next decade.
  83. To pay a premium – to pay a higher price for something because it’s a better quality or has a better brand, for instance - You’ll pay a premium for coffee at that shop, but I am sure you will enjoy it.
  84. Read between the lines - To understand the implicit or hidden meaning behind someone's words. Example - His email seemed polite, but reading between the lines, I could tell he was upset.
  85. To play catch up – to make a big effort to overcome a late start; when you are behind and you have to take actions to get to the level of your competition - Let’s face it. We had to play catch up with all of the phones and computers that have been recently developed.  This new idea of a compact computer should sell.
  86. To plug (a product) – to promote a product; to talk positively about it - It was interesting to have the owner plug the product line for so many years. It really helped with sales.
  87. To pull the plug – to stop a project that is not doing well; stop moving forwards; discontinue - Even though it was an interesting idea to give away a mug with each book purchase, the boss pulled the plug as it we ran out of mugs.
  88. To put a lid on – to stop; to stop something from increasing. This is often used to discuss spending. - Expenses are getting out of control. We need to put a lid on spending.
  89. To rally the troops – to motivate others; to get others excited about; to move forward - The new manager was good at rallying the troops to build company spirit. He planned dress-up days that were lots of fun.
  90. To snap up – to buy quickly or in large quantities; a term that implies that the product is very desirable so that many people are buying it - We snapped up all of those company tee-shirts that were on sale.
  91. To throw cold water over/on (an idea/plan) – to present reasons something does not work; to discourage - He continued to throw cold water on the new plan that we wanted to do and finally he agreed with it.
  92. Under the table – secretly as in money that is paid  (e.g., the deal is often illegal); opposite:  above board - They made an agreement under the table so I don’t really know what was said.
  93. Uphill battle – a difficult fight - It was an uphill battle to get the extra vacation day approved.
  94. Word of mouth - gossip; news spread by people talking to each other (note: often used as a marketing term to describe an advertising or marketing message that is spread from one person to another -- which is a positive thing for the company because it means that people are talking about the company's product or service)The restaurant special quickly spread by word of mouth and their business boomed.
  95. Up in arms – very angry - The employees were up in arms when the health insurance costs went up.
  96. Value added - of, relating to, or being a product whose value has been increased especially by special manufacturing, marketing, or processing - There was value added when we listened to what the customers wanted and changed our product accordingly.
  97. Walking a tightrope between - to deal carefully when in a sensitive situation, choosing between two things (often opposing things); i.e. "Tightrope" is a rope that acrobats cross in a circus, very carefully. - It was difficult to do my job as it always seemed like walking a tightrope between one manager and another.
  98. Warts-and-all - not trying to hide the bad things even with the problems or flaws; ignoring the unattractive features - I have some issues with my boss, but overall I like working for him, warts-and-all.
  99. Weigh in on - give one's opinion about.Roger is making over $100,000 a year. I'd like to weigh in on the decision of what he gets paid for next year.
  100. Worth a fortune -  worth a large amount of money - The coffee franchise was worth a fortune.
  1. Wrong side of the bed -  to seem grouchy and unhappy on a particular day; to begin the day in a bad mood - Margaret was almost always positive, but today it seemed she got up on the wrong side of the bed. Everything she said was negative.

Remember, you can write to me anytime using the comments below. I am always happy to hear from you. Weigh in on this article. Don’t keep it under wraps. Feel free to spread the word.  It may just be the English help someone wants and needs. It might be a help to your confidence.  If you have time on your hands, here’s a list of additional articles to learn more about idioms:

Dotting My i’s and Crossing My t’s – Getting Those Business Idioms in Order

How 25+ Occupations Shaped the History of English Language Idioms

How 27 Idiomatic Expressions Made My Day!

A Dozen Idioms – Who Said Animals Can’t Talk?

50+ Idioms – The Animals Keep Talking

Idioms and Memories – Old Photos in the Attic

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