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In the business world we frequently use idioms like get your ducks in a row, the whole nine yards, gung-ho, winning hands down, lead-pipe cinch, skin of your teeth, Hobsons choice, the devils in the details, by the book, in spades, and silver bullet. Yes, we know what those phrases mean, but did you ever wonder where they originated?

As it turns out, there are multiple theories, some of which are amusing and many of which are more subjective than historical.Online sites say that ducks in a row originated with duck pins being set in place manually in a bowling alley before the invention of automatic setting machines. The whole nine yards, some of us think, refers to the number of cubic yards of dirt that a dump truck can carry. Gung ho, an expression popularized by the U.S. Marines, is derived from two Chinese words meaning work and together.Winning hands down originated with jockeys in horse races dropping their hands from the reins and allowing their horses to run free if they were obviously winning.

The Phrase Finder, a website hosted by U.K. author Gary Martin, points out that a cinch is used to make a saddle secure and that the word has also taken on the additional meaning of easy. Although there seems to be no clear reason why the combination lead-pipe cinch is used, it can be traced as far back as 1889.

Martin also cant explain how the phrase by the skin of your teeth came into use, but he notes that it first appeared in a 1560 English translation of the Geneva Bible.

But Hobsons choice is an easy one for Martin. Apparently, Thomas Hobson, who ran a 16th century stable in Cambridge, England, insisted that university students rent only the horse that he had placed nearest the door. Their option was this one or none, or Hobsons choice.

As for the devil is in the details, an expression common in the 1990s that has been erroneously attributed to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Martin notes that it was probably derived from an old German proverb, which translates to God is in the detail.

He says that by the book referenced the Bible upon which courtroom oaths have been taken, and that it was in use as far back as 1833.He also thinks that its reasonable to conclude that the positive expression in spades came into use because spades are the highest ranking suit in contract bridge before clubs, diamonds and hearts.

Martin says that silver bullet, the expression for an action which cuts through complexity and provides an immediate solution to a problem, came from the early fiction that silver bullets were the only way to kill supernatural beings like werewolves, witches and other uncanny bodies.

If youre interested, take time to browse through The Phrase Finder and similar sources online. That may be a deep dive, but it will give you something to talk about after your next meeting.

Jack Goodhue, management coach, may be contacted at

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