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Idioms at Work

Even if your English language skills are strong, you may not understand some of the more colloquial phrases that are used in conversation. You may already know that an idiom is a group of words that has a figurative meaning, though they may not make sense literally. I’d like to highlight a few fairly common idioms that you’ll hear in an average American workplace.


Susannah Barba and I discuss upcoming Wetzel Language events.

Once in a blue moon – occasionally, once in a while. This phrase stems from the idea of a “blue” moon – a rare occurrence of two full moons in one month. “I enjoy hiking, but with my busy schedule, I’m able to go only once in a blue moon.”

In over his head – to be “drowning” in responsibility. “Between his recent promotion and many side projects, I can tell he’s really in over his head.”

When in Rome – stems from the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This just means that when you’re in a new or foreign place, it’s best to act the way the natives do in order to fit in and get the most out of your experience. “Should we remove our shoes when we enter their home?” “When in Rome…” ( = yes, we should, because it’s their custom and we are the visitors)

Put on a poker face – to put on a neutral air, to hide emotions. Poker is a card game that requires hiding your emotions so as not to give away your advantages or disadvantages. “I can never tell what she’s thinking — she’s always got her poker face on.”

Put all your eggs in one basket – this refers to placing all your energies, time or money in one prospect. If you put all of your delicate eggs in one basket, if that basket drops, they will all break. If you put them in different baskets, some will break while the rest remain safe. “I put all my eggs in one basket when planning my retirement, so when the funds fell through, I had to start over with nothing.”

Dip your pen in the company ink – to use company resources for your own benefit. This often implies something unethical or illegal. “He tried to save money by dipping his pen in the company ink, but when his boss found out, he was immediately terminated.”

Plead the Fifth – This refers to the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which includes a right to avoid self-incrimination. When someone says, “I plead the Fifth,” they’re implying that they have information, but will not tell what it is. “Can you tell us anything about the missing office supplies?” “I plead the Fifth!” ( = I may have the answer, but I won’t say!)

John Hancock – this is another name for a signature. John Hancock, an early American statesman, left a large and elaborate signature on the Declaration of Independence. When someone asks for your “John Hancock,” they’re asking for your signature.