Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

Going sideways • Come back to bite us • Right the ship • Bottleneck • Own a problem • Burn the midnight oil

Unfortunately, many projects at work don’t go as well as we would like. Because this is so common, there are plenty of English sayings and slang words for times like those. Today I have a story about just such a situation.


You get a text message from a colleague that reads, “Hey, we’ve got to talk.” So, you call her, and she says, “Look, I’m worried that our distribution plan is going sideways, and if we don’t correct for it now, it’ll come back to bite us.”

“Well, that’s obviously a bummer,” you say. “Okay, let’s meet. I’m sure we can right the ship.”


When we say something is “going sideways”, it means that it is going wrong or failing. Normally we like things to make progress and go forward, rather than “go sideways”.

When we say that something “comes back to bite us”, it means that a mistake was made in the past and now it is causing trouble. This is a shortened form of a crude saying, “comes back to bite us in the ass”. The idea is that the problem, which we picture as an animal, has attacked us from behind.

I’ve covered bummer before. Here’s a link if you need to refresh your memory.

“To right the ship” means to fix the problems with a project or other undertaking. It comes from the world of boats. When a ship is “listing”, it is leaning on its side, like in the picture above. When we “right the ship”, we bring it back to its upright and proper position.


Back to our story. After the two of you review the situation, you say, “Okay, the problem appears to be a bottleneck at our warehouse at the port. Is there someone we can call about this?”

“No,” your colleague says. “We’re going to have to own this. We recommended using that warehouse more often, remember?”

“Ah, right,” you say. “Well, we’re going to have to burn the midnight oil to solve this one. Let’s get to work.”


A “bottleneck”, generally speaking, is anything that slows down or interferes with the smooth functioning of a process. Usually it refers to things that flow in some way, whether it’s oil, trucks, information, and so on. It’s probably obvious, but this saying comes from the shape of a bottle. The neck of a bottle is the narrow part at the top. It slows down the liquid so it doesn’t spill everywhere. That’s good in real bottles, but not in business.

“To own” a problem or project means that you accept responsibility for it and will work to make it succeed.

“To burn the midnight oil” means that you expect to work long hours - usually into the late night around midnight - to complete a project. This saying has been around for hundreds of years, when people used to burn oil to create light. So, if you were burning the midnight oil, you were staying up late.


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