Illustrations by Spencer Olson

‘Let’s Take This Offline Where We Can Brainstorm a Little More Outside the Box’

Where did all this office jargon come from? A condensed etymology

Is there a parlor game where people can compete to see how many office clichés they can cram into the fewest sentences?

If there isn’t, there should be. We certainly have enough material to work with. (“Let’s circle back and consider whether this is in our wheelhouse. Ping me later, so we can touch base before the meeting.” 50 points!)

These verbal emoticons of drudgery convey more sentiment than meaning. We know that “synergy” is something that we’re all supposed to be aspiring towards, and that it’s a really, really good thing. But could any two people in a workplace agree on what it actually is?

Perhaps understanding the true origins of these terms would help — or, at the very least, confirm your worst fears that if something sounds like gibberish, it probably is.

“Let’s table this.”

What it means: “Let’s deal with this later.”
What it really means: “Let’s put this off until everyone forgets about it.”
Origin: This term goes all the way back to British parliamentary procedure, when a piece of legislation was placed on the speaker’s table for discussion. In most of the English-speaking world, to “table” something means to immediately take up an issue. But, in America, we do things our own way. Since the mid-19th century, Congress has used the phrase “table a motion” to postpone discussion. That’s because, in the U.S., a table became synonymous with an archive or a storage area, such as a shelf or a desk drawer.
Bonus fact: In the mid-15th century, to “table” meant to “provide food.” Those were better times.

“Blue-sky thinking”

What it means: Creating thinking that is not bounded by contemporary ideas or beliefs.
What it really means: Creative thinking that ultimately conforms to the ideas of management.
Origin: Some people believe this began as a reference to casual contemplation — back in the days when you’d lie on your back, watching the clouds, pondering random thoughts. The true origin is what you’d expect in a business setting: In the early 20th century, “blue sky” was frequently applied to describe fraud — notably, financiers who would inflate and over-capitalize securities based on nothing more tangible than “blue sky and hot air.” That’s why, today, “blue-sky thinking” is sometimes also described as thinking with no basis in reality.
Bonus fact: In scientific and R&D circles, “blue-sky research” is synonymous with “basic research” — expanding knowledge without a specific application in mind.

“Touch base”

What it means: A quick conversation.
What it really means: Your supervisor has the attention span of a sponge.
Origin: According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary: “You have to make contact with the three bases in your way around the base path to home plate. That’s why coaches tell players to remember to touch all bases.” The Oxford English Dictionary says that the first known use of this expression outside of baseball was in a 1918 publication about the U.S. Army in France, which included the phrase “he touched base at every desk in headquarters without ever having the chance to discuss the war situation.”
Bonus fact: The most infamous story of a runner not touching base was New York Giants pinch-hitter Fred Merkle, who committed an error in a September 23, 1908 game against the Chicago Cubs. The game was tied 1–1 at the bottom of the ninth, with Merkle on first and Moose McCormick on third. Al Bridwell hit a single, bringing McCormick home and winning the game. But amid the apparent victory, Merkle never proceeded to second. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved the ball, touched second base and appealed to the umpire that Merkle was out. The game was declared a tie, and in the make-up game, the Cubs beat the Giants 4–2, winning the National League Pennant.

“This is in our wheelhouse.”

What it means: “We would be good at this.”
What it really means: “We need to prove we’re good at something.”
Origin: The Oxford English Dictionary defines wheelhouse as “a structure enclosing a large wheel, e.g. a water-wheel; specifically a house or superstructure containing the steering-wheel, a pilot-house.” As Daily Finance writer Bruce Watson observes: “It’s easy to see why the word has captured the popular imagination: wheelhouses are small spaces with excellent visibility, where the skipper is in control of the boat and prepared to face any dangers that it might encounter. In a wheelhouse…. a boat’s pilot can practice his ‘core competencies in an area with lots of blue ocean and the opportunity for plenty of ‘blue-sky thinking.’”
Bonus fact: Watson argues that “wheelhouse” entered the business world via baseball, which borrowed the nautical term to describe the heart of a hitter’s strike zone.

“Brainstorming”

What it means: A free-for-all group meeting that encourages spontaneous, creative ideas.
What it really means: A free-for-all group meeting where ideas are generated and then summarized in a lengthy memo that is never seen again.
Origin: The concept was invented in 1938 by Alex Osborne, an advertising executive who was disappointed by the inability of individual staff members to come up with creative ideas for ad campaigns. Osborne initially called the process “organized ideation,” and popularized it in his 1948 book, Your Creative Power. In previous decades, a “brainstorm” most commonly meant “a cerebral disturbance,” “a mental catastrophe” or “temporary insanity.” So basically nothing has changed.
Bonus fact: “The Brainstorm” cocktail is made with 1 part rye whiskey, 2 dashes of Bénédictine and 2 dashes of dry vermouth. Recommended for your next office meeting.

“Think outside the box.”

What it means: To look at problems from a different perspective; lateral thinking.
What it really means: “I need an unconventional idea that I can take credit for.”
Origin: Marketing consultants popularized the phrase in the 1960s and 70s. (“It is,” says Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, “about as clichéd as it gets.”) However, the concept didn’t involve an actual box. The consultants wowed their clients by challenging them to solve the classic “Nine Dots Puzzle.” The dots are arranged in a grid and the goal is to connect all of them using just four lines without lifting the pen from the paper. Spoiler alert: The solution is to draw the lines so that they extend outside the box-shaped grid.
Bonus fact: Although the term has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, the underlying principle — using logic that doesn’t conform to traditional step-by-step thinking — is quite sound. Psychologist Karl Duncker devised an experiment illustrating the benefits of lateral thinking in 1945. He gave participants a small box containing thumbtacks, a candle and matches. They were told to find a way to fasten the candle to a wall. But most of them failed because they only considered the contents of the box and not the box itself. The solution, of course, was to melt the wax at the bottom of the candle, fasten it to the box and then tack the box to the wall. The lesson: Don’t be so quick to discard the box when you’re asked to think outside it.

“Spitball”

What it means: To toss around ideas with little expectation that they will actually be used.
What it really means: A PowerPoint presentation is experiencing technical difficulties and your boss needs a way to fill time until the IT person shows up.
Origin: In baseball, a spitball is a late-breaking pitch with a ball that’s been spat upon. In business and government, it came to mean wild speculation, since even veteran spitball throwers were never sure about the trajectory of their pitches.
Bonus fact: Few baseball terms have as many creative synonyms as “spitball.” Among those listed in the Dickson Baseball Dictionary: aqueous toss, brown spitter, bubble-gum ball, country sinker, Cuban forkball, damp sling, expectoration pellet, geyser ball, vapor float and wet wipe.

“Ping”

What it means: To get in touch with someone.
What it really means: Avoiding a voice-to-voice conversation.
Origin: “In the 1980s, early internet users adopted ping to describe the process by which one computer queries a second computer (often a network server) to find out if it is online,” says Slate’s word correspondent, Katy Waldman. “That query, or ‘echo request,’ became known as a ‘ping’; the answer, or ‘echo reply,’ was a ‘pong.’”

Pinging someone has become popular office-speak because it’s conveniently noncommittal: it can mean anything from a brief text message, a Post-It note stuck to someone’s door, or calling a colleague and then leaving them a voicemail during their lunch hour when you’re fairly certain they’ll be away from their desk.
Bonus fact: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ping” was initially used onomatopoetically, to mean “a short, resonant, high-pitched (usually metallic) sound,” such as “the firing of a bullet.” It entered the communications lexicon when it was used to describe the sound of a submarine’s sonar during World War II.

“Low-hanging fruit”

What it means: An easily achievable goal.
What it really means: Aim low.
Origin: A visually simple but ass-backward metaphor. Fruit ripens first at the top of the tree, which means the low-hanging fruit is typically picked last.
Bonus fact: In Greek mythology, the gods tortured a poor schmuck named Tantalus by cursing him with insatiable hunger and then taunting him with branches of fruit that were just slightly out of reach — arguably a better metaphor for what actually goes on in much of the business world.

“Drink the Kool-Aid”

What it means: To enthusiastically pursue a task without question.
What it really means: It’s your official job description.
Origin: A reference to the Jonestown Massacre when, in 1978, more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones drank grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide. Some drank the poison willingly; others were misled into believing that it was a practice drill, while some did it against their will. Forbes magazine named it the most annoying business cliché of 2012, observing that, “Robotic allegiance is bad enough; coming up with tactless expressions for it is horrendous.”
Bonus fact: The expression has become so ubiquitous that, on November 18, 2014 — the 37th anniversary of the massacre — Episcopalian Priest James D. Richardson wrote an editorial in the Washington Post urging people to stop using it: “Many of us have not forgotten the nightmare of Jonestown. The rest of you need to clean up your language.”

“Synergy”

What it means: A collaborative, profitable venture.
What it really means: Nobody knows.
Origin: Ironically, this most unholy of business clichés began as a mid-17th-century theological doctrine: the idea that individual salvation is achieved through the combination of human will and divine grace. By the mid-19th century, synergy more broadly meant, “helping another in work.” But it was not until 1957 that it entered the business lexicon via British psychologist Raymond Cattell who, in his book, Personality and Motivation Structure and Measurement, wrote that: “Immediate synergy through group membership […] expresses the energy going into the group life as a result of satisfaction with fellow members.”

In the 1980s, “synergy” became the popular buzzword in mergers and acquisitions. Investopedia defines it as: “The concept that the value and performance of two companies combined will be greater than the sum of the separate individual parts.”

Today, it can mean just about anything that falls under the vague category of doing something that somehow yields some sort of positive result. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Richard Bierck captures the horror that this cliché has wrought:

“Public speakers throw ‘synergy’ around with equal abandon. If work is done well — that is, precisely according to the master plan outlined by the speaker — synergies will be an inevitable result. The audience isn’t told how or why, and these synergies are rarely, if ever, enumerated, much less explained. All the employees know is that if they are sufficiently virtuous, synergies will ensue, as surely as their emails and voicemails pile up while they suffer protracted pronouncements from management. One plus one will somehow equal three.”
Bonus fact: In the medical world, synergy describes the combined activities of multiple organs to produce a single result.

“Bang for the buck”

What it means: Getting the largest return possible on your investment.
What it really means: Somebody in corporate headquarters has a gambling addiction.
Origin: No, it doesn’t have anything to do with sex (at least, it didn’t initially). The expression emerged during the early days of the Cold War, when the Eisenhower Administration sought to cut military spending while also achieving superiority over the Soviet Union, which had much larger ground forces in Europe. Instead of the costly approach of training and maintaining armies worldwide, the U.S. would build more nukes and rely on the threat of massive retaliation — a strategy that came to be described as “more bang for the buck.”
Bonus fact: Nuclear weapons turned out to be more bang for much more bucks, costing the U.S. a total of $5.5 trillion between 1940 and 1996.

Mark Strauss is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. He previously wrote a history of men worrying about going bald.