You hold the elevator. You tip well. You call your mom regularly. You’re a good person! The last thing you want to do is offend someone during a meeting. And yet, it can happen. You probably had no idea, having heard it a million times and never thought about it. But once you know, it’s mortifying.
We’re all the sum of our life experiences. What we know and say has a lot to do with how and where we grew up. That’s a good thing! It makes us special, gives us character. But we all need to be aware that regional and local expressions are deeply rooted in history. And people 100 years ago (and even more recently than that) said some shockingly offensive stuff.
We can try to give our relatives the benefit of the doubt: Their worlds were smaller, and they didn’t know any better. But today we live in a melting pot full of diverse people, languages, cultures, and lifestyles—so it’s time to take a closer look at some of those frequently heard phrases and idioms and weed out the unwanted.
8 common expressions no one wants to hear anymore
1. Call a spade a spade
The term originated from a translation of an ancient Greek phrase, but over time, “spade” has acquired a negative, racial overtone.
Instead of: “Hey, I’m just calling a spade a spade.”
Say: “Hey, I’m just telling it like it is.”
2. Hip hip hooray
When Jews were being persecuted in 19th century central Europe, the rallying cry of their assailants was, “Hep hep!” It was used by the Nazi regime with the same intent.
Instead of: “Three cheers for Sally! Hip, hip, hooray!”
Say: “Yay for Sally! Way to go!”
3. Open the kimono
Meaning “to reveal important information (especially secrets) freely or prematurely,” the metaphor is based on Western geisha fantasies, and its use in a business context dates back to the 1970s, disrespectfully referring to Japanese businessmen.
Instead of: “It looks like we opened the kimono too soon.”
Say: “It looks like we revealed too much too soon.”
4. No can do
This expression cropped up in the mid-1800s, mocking Pidgin English when many Westerners held racist attitudes toward the East.
Instead of: “You want that by EOD? No can do.”
Say: “You want that by EOD? Sorry, I can’t do that.”
5. Rule of thumb
This one’s based on a 17th century English law allowing men to assault their wives with a stick as long as it was no wider than their thumb. Today, it’s still associated with domestic abuse.
Instead of: “As a rule of thumb, we use a serial comma at Contrast.”
Say: “Our standard practice at Contrast is to use a serial comma.”
6. Drink the Kool-Aid
This phrase refers to someone with unconditional loyalty—and has a tragic story behind it. It comes from the 1978 Jonestown massacre, where over 900 people died from drinking a cyanide-laced beverage (many of whom drank it unknowingly).
Instead of: “Wow, George is really drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Say: “Wow, George is 100% on board—and I’m not sure he has all the facts.”
7. Off the reservation
This has its origins in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, when Native Americans were restricted to living on reservations. Anyone found outside of reservation land could face dire consequences.
Instead of: “In my experience, creatives sometimes go off the reservation.”
“Say: “In my experience, creatives sometimes do their own thing.”
8. The money shot
In more innocent, PG-rated times, it was perfectly okay to naively utter this indelicate phrase aloud during, say, an advertising photo shoot. Today, the world is more 50 Shades of Gray.
Instead of: “Finally! That took forever. But we have the money shot.”
Say: “Let’s use this photo. It’s the best shot of the day.”
Of course, our list barely scratches the surface of old phrases and idioms that are ready to be retired. You’ve probably heard people saying one or more of these in a business context—and they were probably unaware of their true origins. But now we know. And knowledge is power—so let’s use our newfound awareness to kick these expressions to the curb.