This is the second in a series of articles based on excerpts from a presentation made by Heather Chetwynd at the ING Cafe in downtown Toronto in Fall 2012. Please watch out for more upcoming posts based on the variety of topics that were covered at that event.


In Canada we use idioms often. There are many types – some are used in business, some are very casual and others downright rude! A European client of mine once mentioned that he felt it was unprofessional to use idioms in a business environment. He had been taught that using idioms represented a low status, but in Canada, we don’t have this association. Rather there is language – expressions and vocabulary – which is suitable for different areas of life, but there is no negative stigma attached to using idioms.

So here I would like to refer to some common idioms, many of which come from the “wild west” and others that come from sports. Idioms grow out of our day-to-day lives and, in the old days, Canadian lives often revolved around boats, horses, guns, gambling, etc.. Though you may think idioms which have grown out of such contexts may be unprofessional, in actual fact, many of these idioms are extremely common in business environments and are considered part of professional speech.


A common idiom is “on board.” We use this as a verb also (which means the process used to bring on new people in an organization.) But here we are using it as an adverb. “TO GET ON BOARD” means to go along with an idea, to support it – when we’re on board, we agree to the proposal. And this idiom comes from ships. The literal meaning of “to be on board” originally meant to be on a ship (and now it is also used with trains and planes.)

Many idioms are related to cards – for example, “TO PLAY YOUR CARDS RIGHT.” Do you know what that means? Well cards are used for gambling, for example playing poker. So if you play your cards right, you win. And that’s what it means. If you play your cards right, you get what you want.

Horses – “TO BEAT A DEAD HORSE” – that’s an idiom. If you beat a dead horse, what happens? Nothing right? So let’s say you know there’s no way you are going to do something. You’ve already said you can’t afford a service and don’t really want it anyway, but the salesperson keeps coming back to you and trying to convince you. So as far as your concerned, he’s beating a dead horse. You are not going to become his client. It’s a waste of time.

Guns – “TO BE UNDER THE GUN.” It means to be under pressure. If I’m standing over you waiting for you to complete something, you’re under the gun. You’re under pressure. And it usually means time pressure.

Here’s a list of a few more common wild west idioms:

Cards – HAVE THE CARDS STACKED AGAINST YOU — to have your chance at future success limited by factors over which you have no control; to have luck against you.

Horses – CHOMPING AT THE BIT – to be eager to get going (literally a horse chewing on the bit that goes through its mouth)

Guns – DRAW A BLANK –  to not be able to remember something when reminds you

Ships – LEARN THE ROPES – learn how things are done in a new environment


In business we also use a lot of sports idioms. I don’t know a lot of sports but I know the idioms. And when people know a little about a particular sport, they can usually get the meaning easily.

So for example, “TO GO TO BAT FOR SOMEONE” originates from baseball. The batter hits the ball using a bat. So when you go to bat for somebody, it means you fight for somebody; you defend them.

Swimming – “DIVING HEAD FIRST:” that’s not the safest thing to do when you don’t know the water. But to dive in head first means to go for it – don’t worry, don’t think about anything; just do it.

Boxing – “Hit Below The Belt:” if you hit someone below the belt, especially a man, it’s not very comfortable, and in boxing, you’re not supposed to do that. So let’s say I’m angry at you and I tell you what I’m angry about but I can do that in a nice way or I can just start saying things that are mean. And if I do it in a mean manner because I want to hurt you, that’s hitting below the belt.

And golf? I don’t play golf but I know you can “MAKE THE CUT” or “MISS THE CUT.” Idiomatically, if you all apply for a job, and I say that a few people didn’t make the cut, it means they were eliminated because they weren’t good enough.


Take your time when learning idioms. The first step is realizing that an idiom has been used. Then you need to understand the meaning. After that, you need to learn when it is appropriate to use the idiom. And finally, you need to know how to use it – can it be conjugated or adjusted according to context or is it used exactly as is? Take one at a time and slowly build your list. Good luck!