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To thrive in workplace, it pays to know the lingo

By Nathan Bierma
Special to the Tribune
Published March 23, 2007

What do you need to know to fly a plane, play a symphony or serve food? For starters, you need to know the lingo.

Author Mim Harrison talked to experts in 15 professions for her new book "Words at Work: An Insider's Guide to the Language of Professions" (Walker and Company, 144 pages, $16.95). The book won't tell you how to do other people's jobs, but it will help you sound like an insider when you can toss around terms of art like these:

Restaurants: Servers talk about the "four-top" (the table of four); "deuce" (table of two); "ace" (one) or the "green table" (one with vegetarian customers).

Customers aren't seated until their table is "turned" -- cleaned and prepared for new customers. The waiters dread "squatters" or "campers" -- customers who linger after finishing their food -- almost as much as they fear getting "slammed," or inundated by new tables all at once.

It's actually a good thing to "drop the food," if by that you mean delivering the food to the table when it's ready. If someone didn't get the correct dish, then give the kitchen a "9-1-1," an emergency order they should work on right away. Hopefully your customer is a "whale," a tipper who leaves more than a 20 percent tip, and not a "stiff," who leaves less than 15 percent.

Retail: If you're a "store dog," someone who has worked in retail for more than 15 years, then you know why an item "dogged," or didn't sell, and how to capitalize on "poodle traffic" -- fashion-conscious, deep-pocketed shoppers. Follow the "planogram," the diagram of which products go where in your store. Don't forget to "sign" your products, that is, put signs on the merchandise.

You hope to "turn and burn," or sell a large quantity of a product, especially if it has a high "attachment rate" -- a number of accessories you can persuade a customer to buy in addition. Then you won't even need to "spiff" the product, or offer the sales staff incentives to sell it. Try not to lose any "walking business," or customers who leave because you didn't have what they were looking for.

Airline pilot: When you're ready to go, "power back," or reverse from the gate (you might need a "tug" -- a truck to push you).

Tell the flight attendants to prepare for "cross-check," when they double-check that all the doors are closed securely.

Try to get comfy if you're in the "jump seat," or the seat (usually cramped) in the cockpit reserved for a pilot who's just hitching a ride.

"Hold short," or wait just off the runway, before taking off. When you're in the air, you can tell your "pax," or passengers, the altitude you'll be flying, and brag that you're no "bug-smasher," or low-flying aircraft.

You'll tell them if there's any "weather" -- an industry euphemism for "bad weather" -- ahead, and how much of today's flight will be "feet wet" (over water) and "feet dry" (over land).

When you get ready to land, decide if you want to "grease" it -- hit the runway softly and gradually -- or "plant it" -- touch down quickly and firmly, which uses less runway but could jostle your pax.

Symphony musician: You may ridicule your conductor, behind her back, as a "stick picker," but you should know that she might be deriding you as one of the "wire choir" (string section), "licorice sticks" (clarinets), or "rain catchers" (tubas).

You'll have to be at your best if your page is "black," or covered with notes to play.

You should realize that "today's squeak is tomorrow's audition," meaning that a particularly difficult note in a new piece could show up as a test piece at your next audition. Until then, don't worry about it, just say, "That note is an octave above my salary." And just "start at the northwest corner" -- the beginning of the piece, at the top left corner of the page.

Pharmacist: When you get your "script," or prescription, find the "sig codes," the abbreviated directions from the doctor.

If you see the term "OBECALP," you'll recognize, but the customer probably won't, that the medication is actually a harmless placebo (OBECALP is the word spelled backward).

Pharmacy is all about "bugs and drugs" -- knowing which drugs (medications) kill which bugs (illnesses) -- but try telling that to the doctor who practices "polypharmacy" or "duplicate therapy," prescribing multiple or redundant medications to try to cure a malady. Make sure you're stocked with "Vitamin R" and "Vitamin V" -- Ritalin and Viagra, respectively -- because those are big sellers. When the prescription is ready, then "torch it" -- heat-seal it, and it's ready to go.


What words or phrases do you use on the job that might require translating for the rest of us? E-mail Nathan Bierma at

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