Old (But Not Entirely Forgotten) Office Terminology

If we've learned anything from pop culture and shows like The Office or Office Space, it's that the place where we conduct business is like an ecosystem in and of itself. The concept of an office has been around since well before the industrial revolution (evidence suggests the ancient Romans had offices). Of course, older office buildings wouldn't look anything like our offices today, and just like the space has evolved, so have the tools and terms of office culture.

Even so, our office-speak today includes old sayings and terms that reference outdated items, and in some cases they've taken on more modern meanings. Take a stroll down memory lane and learn what some of these office terms mean and what inspired their names.

memo

The term memo is one that has transcended the office space. Short for memorandum, memo means  "a short note designating something to be remembered, especially something to be done or acted upon in the future; reminder." In the office, a memo can refer to the informal messages exchanged between two coworkers concerning company business. The term memorandum first entered English in the 1400s and is derived from the Latin verb memorāre ("to mention"). Its shortened form dates back to the 1700s.

Now that we're well within the digital age, we aren't passing out as many hard-copy memos; instead we get persistent notifications dinging on our phones! (Lucky us.) However, conversationally we do use the term quite a bit as slang for news. For instance, when you hear information you hadn't heard before, you might say, "Sorry, I didn't get the memo."

bleeding edge

Working in a specific environment leads to the creation of inside-baseball chatter. Office life is no different. When office jargon develops, it spreads and is widely understood throughout offices everywhere.

One formerly common, albeit gruesome, term used in offices is the bleeding edge. It first became popular in the 1980s and is patterned after the term cutting edge. Bleeding edge means "the most advanced stage of a technology, art." Often these advances are experimental and risky.

We may hear management using this term as a way to corral employees: For Q-2 [second quarter] we need some ideas on the bleeding edge to really turn things around.

fax

Before we could easily add an attachment to an email or transfer images from our phones to the office group chat, we had to fax everything that needed sharing. The verb fax is derived from the word facsimile, with means "an exact copy."

Fax machines, which were highly popular in the '80s and '90s, were used to transmit copies of documents, drawings, and other correspondence between offices. The first fax machine was invented by Alexander Bain in the year 1843. While that date may shock you, what might surprise you even more is that the etymological roots date back even further. The 17th-century word derives from the Latin phrase fac simile, meaning "make something like it."

Today, you may occasionally hear someone say, "Fax it over to my office" when they want something sent over for review. (An apt reply might be to ask, "How old are you?" and email them instead.)

soup to nuts

The saying soup to nuts is one that takes us outside of the office, as it refers to a lengthy meal that includes multiple courses.

The phrase is informally used to describe something that is "complete or all-inclusive." This Americanism dates back at least to the 1930s and an era in which people literally finished their meals with a bowl of nuts shared at the table. A similar saying existed in Latin: ab ovo usque ad mala, meaning "from egg to apple."

Soup to nuts became office slang somewhere in the early '80s. It means taking care of a task or entity wholly. For instance, a manager may say, "This is an important client, let's take care of him from soup to nuts."

rolodex

It's hard to imagine a world in which finding someone's contact information was slightly more complicated than accessing your mobile phone. But it's true. If you wanted to impress your boss and colleagues at the office, having a plump Rolodex was the way to do it.

A Rolodex is defined as "a small desktop file containing cards for names, addresses, and phone numbers." Typically, it contained an alphabetized set of contacts that would spin around so you could flip through them. So you'd say, "Let me check my Rolodex," when someone needed a contact. As you can tell by the capital R, the name itself is a trademark.

Most modern offices today don't use a physical Rolodex, but the term itself isn't entirely lost on this generation. The name of this office staple has become synonymous with having "connections" in your specific field. For instance, a career description for a job posting may include: Must have a robust Rolodex full of entertainment industry contacts. In this context, a Rolodex simply means that you will have contacts at the ready.

pager

Before texting and pinging via a communication service like Slack became the norm, there were pagers. Pagers or beepers, are defined as a "pocket-size electronic device whose signal notifies a person of an important message, sometimes displaying the telephone number to be called."

The concept of the pager has been around since the 1920s, and the same technology is still in use at most hospitals because they are so easily accessible for busy doctors or nurses. Pagers were developed to communicate essential information (such as a phone number or medical codes) urgently.

In the office, while the messages communicated were not quite as dire, they were important. Pagers created a lifeline between office mates who were out and their bosses or colleagues. Often people used page as a verb: I paged you this morning.

drilling down

There are two types of office people: the ones who hate office slang, and those who use it all the time. The language of the office tends to be enforced by management and is often used to "inspire" employees to get the job done. One of those nonsensical sayings management types like is drilling down.

The phrase is used to imply that a team needs to hyper-focus on a project to get it done or to solve a problem: We need to drill down on output this month to get our numbers up. The problem is it doesn't necessarily imply a solution; it's just a rather abstract instruction to get the work done. Drill down (which can also refer to piercing and drilling) took this more modern turn in the 1980s, as computing gained popularity.

Today, you might also hear double down, which also describes the idea of working harder, or "re-commiting one’s efforts to a cause or course of action." Double down originates from the card game blackjack, in which you double the original bid in exchange for only one more card.

bandwidth

As computers started to become the office norm, many technological advances, including the Internet soon followed. Electronic telecommunications changed, well, everything, but they especially impacted how business was conducted and how workers talked about it.

For example, for the Internet to run effectively in an office, it required a decent bandwidth. Bandwidth is defined as "the smallest range of frequencies constituting a band within which a particular signal can be transmitted without distortion." Or in other words, the speed with which it operates. 

Over time, and particularly recently, bandwidth has come to mean the mental and physical capacity of one's workload. For instance, a coworker might say, "I don't have the bandwidth to take on another project," which implies they might be stressed or overburdened by their responsibilities in the office. In this case,  you can also see the meaning of burnout.

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