You just got the sack – 5 English idioms from the world of work

There’s no doubt about it, the correct use of English idioms can be tricky to grasp. We have all experienced it, the unsolicited email that tries hard but exhibits a touch of over-ambition in the phrase department. One thing that can help copywriters to correctly use idioms is to understand their etymology (origin). A particularly interesting set are those related to the world of work. Here are our 5 favourites.

I like the cut of your jib (I like your style)

Anyone who has sailed will know a jib is a triangular sail that sits forward of the mast and be adjusted according to requirement. A well shaped (or cut) jib can add propulsion and decrease turbulence, and sailors in times past learnt to recognise approaching ships by (the cut of) their jib.

Strike while the iron is hot (do it now)

A clear reference to the trades of a blacksmith or ironworker here, as iron is only pliable when it hot. This one is often used as a kick up the backside when faced with hesitation and is usually good advice. After all, nobody likes Repetitive Strain Injuries.

A sea change (a completely altered state)

Definitely becoming a popular part of business parlance, this phrase can thank Shakespeare for its current acclaim. In The Tempest, Ariel sings a song to Ferdinand about his supposedly-drowned father and uses the words ‘sea change’ to refer both to his fate and his altered state of existence.

I’ll get the sack (I will lose my job)

This one has almost certainly come from a time when a workforce would use their own bag to carry tools borrowed from their employer. When the time came for employment to end, the workers would return their tools but be given back the bag (or sack).

Red tape (annoying paperwork)

This is an easy one to remember as the ‘red tape’ referred to in the phrase is that used to tie legal documents into a scroll shape. The term has come, over the years, to refer to bureaucratic rules that delay an action or event and are liked by no-one. We imagine that Charles Dickens’ circumlocution office was overflowing with red tape.


Idioms can add colour and effect to writing but all copywriters should be wary of using those which they don’t understand. Luckily help is at hand with some great online phrase definition tools.

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