Confusing Questions Your US Colleagues Might Ask You

Navigating a new office situation is fraught with problems. Are you coming across well? Do you seem ambitious without being cut-throat? When you’re speaking a second language it’s harder still. With so many variations around the world, English is a particularly tricky tongue to master.

George Bernard Shaw said of the United States and the UK that they are “two nations divided by a common language”. He makes a good point. For though both countries nominally speak ‘English’, the quirks and idioms of the American dialect began diverging from their source at the moment the first pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.

Understanding the idioms of a country is a vital part of learning the language, and in no context is it more important than in the office environment where your every word might be under scrutiny. After all, you don’t want to be the team member who ‘can’t hold a candle to’ your US counterparts (an expression dating back to the colonial era, in reference to a person who is extremely inferior).

With so many phrases slipping into everyday language it’s impossible to learn them all (some Americans are left scratching their heads at the meaning behind a colleagues use of the latest office jargon), but you can certainly ‘steal a march’ (a military manoeuvre that gains an advantage over an opponent) on your new colleagues by being prepared for the following questions. If you can’t answer them directly, you can ‘throw them a curveball’ (that’s a baseball reference) with your etymological prowess….

“Are you keeping your nose to the grindstone?”

Translation: Are you working hard?

When the pilgrims first arrived in America, their main source of sustenance was maize – that’s corn to you and me. With electricity still a couple of centuries away, windmills were used to grind the corn into cornmeal. A miller had to manually add kernels to the bowl in which the corn was ground, which meant his nose was always close to the grindstone if he was working hard.

“Shall we just bite the bullet?”

Translation: Shall we make the difficult decision?

This idiom comes from the Civil War, when doctors ran out of whiskey, their primary painkiller during potentially life-saving surgery. Instead, wounded soldiers placed a bullet in their mouths, biting down on it when the pain became intense. The modern day context relates to making a difficult decision often with inevitable consequences.

“Are you passing the buck?”

Translation: Are you shifting the blame to someone else?

Along with military, sports and industrial expressions, the language of gambling is one of the biggest sources of phrases still in common use today. To ‘pass the buck’ is derived from nineteenth century poker games, during which a buckhorn-handled knife would be passed to each new dealer, signifying his responsibility to give out cards.

“Can you work down to the wire tonight?”

Translation: Can you work until the deadline?

During the nineteenth century, American racetracks would place wire across the finish line to help adjudicators determine which horse’s nose crossed the line first. If a race came ‘down to the wire’ it was extremely close. Mercifully for the horses, photo finish technology emerged during the middle of the following century.

“Shall we 86 him?”

Translation: Shall we terminate his employment?

As with all the best idioms, the etymology of the American term ‘86-ed’ is not clear. It is commonly used in bars to announce the ejection of unruly patrons, but may have more sinister origins. According to one account, it comes from the Old West, when the zero-regulation alcohol industry would routinely sell dodgy concoctions. Sometimes the liqor was too strong. Blindness ensued. Mostly, though, it was tight-fisted bartenders watering the whiskey down to increase profits. The accepted minimum alcohol level for your average gun-totin’ outlaw was 43% – or 86-proof. The quality control experiment was this: take a slug from your belt, empty the gunpowder on to the bar, add a few drops of whiskey, light it. If it ignites, the whiskey is good. If the flame fizzles out, the next bullet is bartender-bound. He’s just been 86-ed.

Avoid the bartenders fate and brush up on your office jargon.

Image: Luciano Mortula /