“If it’s in our wheelhouse, great.”
Wheelhouse, I thought. What? Come on, you must know this. Wheels… houses… Nope, nothing.
“Yeah, okay,” I nodded awkwardly.
It was a seminal moment for this Brit in her first week working at Quartz’s New York office. I’d been talking to an editor about story ideas, and faced what I later learned was a baseball-related term.
‘Wheelhouse’ refers to something that falls within someone’s remit or area of expertise. If you’re a journalist, when something is deemed to be in your wheelhouse, you’re best placed to cover it. In baseball, if a pitch is in a batter’s wheelhouse, it’s in the spot where they find it easiest to hit.
These lost-in-translation moments never cease. It prompted me to ask colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic which noteworthy workplace Americanisms and Britishisms had left them similarly baffled.
The biggest lesson: sport comes up a lot in casual conversation, even at a place committed to rejecting these metaphors in its published work.
🇺🇸 Persnickety. The American English version of the British English ‘pernickety’, that is, to be overly fussy about something. (Glad I Googled that one before fixing what I assumed was a typo in this headline.)
🇺🇸 On the nose. To describe something that lacks nuance, is unsubtle, or overly literal. “That headline’s a bit on the nose, don’t you think?”
🇺🇸 To be out of pocket. This has come to be used by my American colleagues (and now, me) to mean that they may be unreachable for a while. To British ears, it suggests a lack of funds.
🇺🇸 To double-click on. To focus on something. With smartphones taking over from desktops, will we soon “tap on” things instead?
🇺🇸 To circle back. “Let’s circle back next week” = let’s discuss this again next week (presumably after you’ve double-clicked on it).
🇺🇸 To speak to. ”I can speak to that point” = I can talk about the issue that has just been raised. Or put more simply, “I can answer that.”
🇺🇸 Curveball. Taking its cue from the looping, spinning pitch in baseball that makes batters look foolish, if someone throws you a metaphorical curveball they are doing something that catches you off guard.
🇺🇸 Home run. In an office setting, the best thing that a batter in baseball can do—hit it out of the park and score everyone one base—denotes any great performance or success.
🇺🇸 Hail Mary. We move from baseball to American football. The Hail Mary is a last, desperate pass at the very end of a game hurled over a great distance with little nuance or subtlety. It rarely succeeds, but when it does there are euphoric celebrations. Off the field, it can mean any bold, last-minute attempt to stop something from almost certainly going wrong.
🇺🇸 To spike the ball on the one-yard line. Another American football-inspired phrase. After scoring a touchdown, the player with the ball often celebrates by spiking it forcefully into the ground. The one-yard line is just before the goal line, beyond which touchdowns are scored. If you were to tell your team “we don’t want to spike the ball on the one yard line,” you’d be cautioning them against celebrating before something is confirmed.
🇺🇸 A) Two-minute drill + B) clutch player + C) to pinch hit. A glorious mix of sports references here: the two-minute drill in American football is a high-intensity series of plays at the end of a game when a team has a chance for a come-from-behind win; a clutch player is someone who performs well under pressure (often at the end of a game); and to pinch hit is to substitute a batter in baseball for someone better placed to get a hit in the situation.
To bring these words together, you could say ahead of a crucial presentation to a potential client, “we’re in a two-minute drill here, so who’s our most clutch player we can bring in to pinch hit?” Translation: We’re in a high-pressure situation, so who is our best, most reliable person to take over and deliver the final pitch?
🇺🇸 🇬🇧 The many meanings of ‘quite’. Brits often use it to mean ‘somewhat,’ usually with a tinge of derision (“that is quite something”). Americans tend to use it in a more straightforward way, to mean ‘a lot.’ “It causes confusion, and now hilarity,” one colleague says.
🇺🇸 🇬🇧 Moot. To Brits, a “moot point” is a debatable, disputable one. To Americans, it’s irrelevant and meaningless. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
🇬🇧 To hit something for six. The first of three sports-related entries from Britain. This is the cricket equivalent of a home run in baseball (see above). ”He really hit it for six in that presentation” = he gave a really great presentation. Relatedly, to be ‘knocked for six’ puts you in the bowler’s place, instead of the batsman’s, implying that someone has bettered you or, often, just that you’re really tired.
🇬🇧 To kick something into touch. This one comes from rugby. If the ball is kicked into touch it has been booted off the field of play, stopping the action. In the corporate world, “we’re kicking this into touch” means that we’ll deal with this issue later.
🇬🇧 Hospital pass. In both soccer and rugby, this is a pass to a teammate that puts them in a dangerous position, exposing them to a tackle by an opponent that could put them on a stretcher. It has come to mean any thankless task that seems doomed to fail—”this pitch you volunteered me for is a real hospital pass.”
🇬🇧 Alright? A casual way of saying hello frequently used by Brits and endlessly confounding to Americans. It is not a question—the proper way to respond to a colleague’s “Alright?” is to “Alright?” them right back. An American colleague who has lived in London for many years still fights the urge to answer the greeting:
“Yes, fine thanks. How are you?”
Does this result in awkward silences? You bet it does.