In the English language, how we talk about work is often as colorful and diverse as the work itself. There’s a rich collection of idioms that describe the various aspects of working hard, facing challenges, and pushing through tough times.
These phrases, like “burning the midnight oil” or “hitting the ground running,” are more than just catchy sayings; they offer a glimpse into common work experiences and attitudes.
So, let’s explore 26 of these work-related idioms.
They’re not only interesting linguistically, but they also give us a window into the culture and mindset behind the language of work.
26 Work Idioms in English
1. “Burning the Candle at Both Ends”
- Idiom: Burning the Candle at Both Ends
- Meaning: Working late into the night and starting early in the morning; overworking oneself.
- Origin: The phrase dates back to the 18th century, implying wasting candle wax (a valuable commodity back then) by burning a candle from both ends, symbolizing excessive work.
Use in a Sentence: She’s been burning the candle at both ends to prepare for the launch, hardly getting any sleep.
2. “All Hands on Deck”
- Idiom: All Hands on Deck
- Meaning: Everyone working together, especially in a busy or stressful time.
- Origin: A nautical term calling all crew members on deck to handle a demanding situation on a ship.
Use in a Sentence: When the critical project phase started, it was all hands on deck to ensure success.
3. “Nose to the Grindstone”
- Idiom: Nose to the Grindstone
- Meaning: Working hard and consistently.
- Origin: Originating from the practice of knife grinders, who literally put their noses close to the grindstone as they worked.
Use in a Sentence: He’s had his nose to the grindstone all month to meet his sales targets.
4. “Roll Up One’s Sleeves”
- Idiom: Roll Up One’s Sleeves
- Meaning: Preparing for hard work or a challenge.
- Origin: Stemming from the physical action of rolling up sleeves to prevent them from getting dirty or hampering work.
Use in a Sentence: It’s time to roll up our sleeves and tackle this problem head-on.
5. “Go the Extra Mile”
- Idiom: Go the Extra Mile
- Meaning: To do more than what is required or expected.
- Origin: Likely comes from the Bible, where Jesus tells someone to walk with their aggressor “an extra mile.”
Use in a Sentence: Our teacher always goes the extra mile to ensure everyone understands the lesson.
6. “In the Trenches”
- Idiom: In the Trenches
- Meaning: Actively involved in the hardest and most challenging parts of work.
- Origin: Military origin, referring to soldiers fighting in the front lines within trenches.
Use in a Sentence: The development team has been in the trenches, working day and night on the new software update.
7. “Elbow Grease”
- Idiom: Elbow Grease
- Meaning: Refers to hard physical effort, especially in cleaning or manual work.
- Origin: Dating back to the 17th century, it humorously suggests that effort or grease from one’s elbow is needed for tough jobs.
Use in a Sentence: It took some elbow grease, but I finally got the old car engine running smoothly.
8. “Pull an All-Nighter”
- Idiom: Pull an All-Nighter
- Meaning: To stay awake all night to work or study.
- Origin: Common in student and professional jargon, this phrase originated in the mid-20th century, referring to working through the entire night.
Use in a Sentence: We had to pull an all-nighter to finish the presentation for tomorrow’s meeting.
9. “Put One’s Back into It”
- Idiom: Put One’s Back into It
- Meaning: To use a lot of physical effort to do something.
- Origin: This expression comes from the idea of using one’s back muscles, implying strong physical effort.
Use in a Sentence: If you put your back into it, we can get this sofa moved in no time.
10. “Keep One’s Nose to the Grindstone”
- Idiom: Keep One’s Nose to the Grindstone
- Meaning: To continue working hard without stopping.
- Origin: Similar to “nose to the grindstone,” it emphasizes continuous hard work.
Use in a Sentence: She’s been keeping her nose to the grindstone to climb the corporate ladder.
11. “Knuckle Down”
- Idiom: Knuckle Down
- Meaning: To start working hard, especially after a period of relaxation or diversion.
- Origin: Originates from the game of marbles, where players start seriously by knuckling down, or putting their knuckles to the ground.
Use in a Sentence: After the holiday break, it’s time to knuckle down and focus on the project.
12. “Buckle Down”
- Idiom: Buckle Down
- Meaning: To start working seriously on something.
- Origin: Possibly derived from the idea of buckling down one’s helmet strap, preparing for hard work or challenges.
Use in a Sentence: We need to buckle down and study if we want to pass the finals.
13. “Make Hay While the Sun Shines”
- Idiom: Make Hay While the Sun Shines
- Meaning: To take advantage of favorable circumstances to accomplish something or work hard.
- Origin: This saying comes from farming, where it’s important to make hay during sunny weather.
Use in a Sentence: We’ve got the funding and the team in place, so let’s make hay while the sun shines.
14. “Get Down to Brass Tacks”
- Idiom: Get Down to Brass Tacks
- Meaning: To start dealing with the essential and practical details of a job or task.
- Origin: The phrase might originate from the brass tacks used in upholstery, referring to getting down to the basic, fundamental aspects.
Use in a Sentence: Enough small talk – let’s get down to brass tacks and discuss our strategy.
15. “Leave No Stone Unturned”
- Idiom: Leave No Stone Unturned
- Meaning: To do everything possible to find something or to solve a problem, being thorough in one’s efforts.
- Origin: The phrase dates back to ancient Greece, from a story of a general who ensured he searched thoroughly for a hidden treasure.
Use in a Sentence: We’ll leave no stone unturned in our search for the perfect candidate for the job.
16. “Crack the Whip”
- Idiom: Crack the Whip
- Meaning: To use one’s authority to urge subordinates to work harder or behave better.
- Origin: This comes from the literal cracking of a whip by wagon drivers and slave masters to increase speed or obedience.
Use in a Sentence: The new manager is really cracking the whip – productivity has definitely increased.
17. “Put in the Hard Yards”
- Idiom: Put in the Hard Yards
- Meaning: To put in a lot of effort, especially in the initial stages of a project or activity.
- Origin: Likely originating from sports, referring to making significant efforts over the distance of a yard in a field.
Use in a Sentence: He’s put in the hard yards to become one of the top players in the league.
18. “Work Like a Dog”
- Idiom: Work Like a Dog
- Meaning: To work extremely hard.
- Origin: Stemming from the hardworking nature of dogs, especially working breeds.
Use in a Sentence: She works like a dog all week to ensure the success of her business.
19. “Burn the Midnight Oil”
- Idiom: Burn the Midnight Oil
- Meaning: To work late into the night or early hours of the morning.
- Origin: Refers to the historical use of oil lamps for light when staying up late to work or study.
Use in a Sentence: We’ll need to burn the midnight oil to finish this project on time.
20. “Toil Away”
- Idiom: Toil Away
- Meaning: To work extremely hard, often at a task that is challenging or laborious.
- Origin: “Toil” implies hard, tiring work, often with a sense of prolonged effort.
Use in a Sentence: He’s been toiling away at the new garden all summer long.
21. “Hit the Ground Running”
- Idiom: Hit the Ground Running
- Meaning: To start a new activity with great energy and enthusiasm.
- Origin: Likely originates from soldiers needing to be ready for action as soon as they landed from a jump or disembarked.
Use in a Sentence: She hit the ground running in her new role and made significant changes in her first month.
22. “Up to One’s Eyeballs”
- Idiom: Up to One’s Eyeballs
- Meaning: To be extremely busy or deeply engrossed in work.
- Origin: Describes being immersed in something up to the level of one’s eyes, suggesting being surrounded or overwhelmed by it.
Use in a Sentence: I’d love to join you for lunch, but I’m up to my eyeballs in paperwork.
23. “Sweat Blood”
- Idiom: Sweat Blood
- Meaning: To work extremely hard, especially when under stress or in difficulty.
- Origin: Emphasizes the intensity of effort or anxiety, as if one were sweating blood.
Use in a Sentence: We sweated blood to get that presentation ready for the investors.
24. “Grind Out”
- Idiom: Grind Out
- Meaning: To produce something in a mechanical or unenthusiastic manner, but persisting to complete the task.
- Origin: Conveys the image of continuously working as though turning a crank or operating a grindstone.
Use in a Sentence: He grinds out reports every week, even though it’s a tedious job.
25. “Pull Out All the Stops”
- Idiom: Pull Out All the Stops
- Meaning: To do everything you can to succeed; to work as hard as possible.
- Origin: Comes from organ playing, where pulling out all the stops increases the volume and power of the music.
Use in a Sentence: We’re going to pull out all the stops to win this competition.
Using Work Hard Idioms in Everyday Language
Using work-related idioms can add a dash of personality and relatability to our everyday conversations, especially in the workplace.
These idioms, when used correctly, can make communication more engaging and expressive. They can serve as ice-breakers in meetings, add humor to presentations, or succinctly express complex work situations.
However, it’s important to gauge the context. In formal settings or with clients, it’s best to use idioms sparingly and choose those that are widely understood.
In more casual or creative environments, idioms can be a fun way to connect with colleagues.
Remember, the key to effectively using idioms is understanding their meanings and matching them to the right context and audience.
FAQs on Using Work-Related Idioms
- Can I use work idioms at work? Absolutely! Work idioms can be a great way to make your communication more vivid and engaging. Just be sure they fit the context and are appropriate for your audience.
- How can I learn work idioms? Reading business-related articles, watching English-language workplace dramas, and listening to business podcasts are excellent ways to pick up work idioms.
- Are work idioms used in formal business settings? Yes, but sparingly and carefully. Choose idioms that are universally understood and avoid those that might be too casual or potentially confusing.
- Can using idioms improve my business English? Yes, idioms can add a natural and fluent quality to your business English, making your language skills appear more advanced and culturally attuned.
- Should I avoid idioms in international business communication? Not necessarily, but be mindful. If you’re unsure whether the idiom will be understood or appropriate, it’s safer to use clear and direct language.
We have more English Idioms here on the site as well