7 Idioms to Avoid for More Inclusive Communication: Part 1

Idiom: “An expression unique to a language, especially one whose sense is not predictable from the meanings and arrangement of its elements, such as “kick the bucket” a slang term meaning ‘to die’, which has nothing obviously to do with kicking or buckets.” [1]

Idioms give language liveliness and are an elegant way to communicate an idea in a few words. In English, many idioms have arisen regionally, so an Australian idiom may not be understood by a Canadian even if English is their first language. For those learning English, idioms present particular problems because their “meaning can’t be deduced from the meanings of the individual words.” When writing for a wide audience it’s a good idea to be aware that using idioms may possibly exclude parts of your target audience.

There’s another reason for caution around the use of idioms, the idiom may have originated in a time or place when/where local values were very different. A useful idiom from many years ago can be seen as vile today and should be removed from your lexicon if you want to build open and inclusive communications. 

Here are seven phrases with origins that you should remove from your communications and some suggestions on what to say in their place. I also have included clarification of one idiom that has been wrongly understood and that really can be safe to use, especially if you help to correct the misconception:

“Sold Down the River”

Originated in States around the Mississippi River during slavery and connotes deep betrayal. The demand for labour on the rapidly expanding cotton plantations of the Deep South led to many slave owners separating male slaves from their kin and shipping them down the Mississippi to slave auctions. Being “sold down the river” was seen by many as a death sentence due to the harsh conditions on the plantations.

Given its racist origins, it should be removed from your vocabulary “Thrown under the bus” indicates betrayal without reference to slavery.


In a meeting recently with our head of IT, I mentioned that we could configure the registration platform with a “whitelist” of safe IP addresses. He quickly corrected me, saying that we now use the term “safe list.” Others have adopted Allow List/Deny List to avoid perpetuating the idea that “white” is good and permitted and “black” is bad and forbidden.

“Open the Kimono”

Not all idioms are historic in nature, though this one may sound traditional. “Open the Kimono” arose in American business jargon during the 1980s. It means to open a company up to closer examination and to reveal its inner workings. The phrase is not in wide use in Japan today. In feudal times the Kimono was opened to show that the wearer was unarmed.

“Open the Kimono” is a sexist term in that it relies on stereotypes of women revealing their bodies at the direction of men. If you want to express a similar idea, “raise the curtains” or “open the books” is a better bet.

“Peanut Gallery”

A term from Vaudeville, which flourished in North America from around 1880 to the 1930s when motion pictures and the depression pushed it aside. Audience members would express displeasure by throwing tomatoes at the stage. The “Peanut Gallery” referred to the cheapest seats in the theatre, often high up and at the back. Theatres were segregated and the second gallery seats were filled by black audience members, who would express their displeasure by throwing – you guessed it – peanuts.

For an alternative without the racist connotations, consider critic or heckler.

“Grandfathered In”

A provision within a new law or regulation that exempts certain people or entities from following that law. Those with “grandfathered in” status may continue to behave as before, while everyone else must follow the new law. Grandfathering is often used in municipal bylaws to avoid penalizing existing property owners when, say, the maximum height of fences is changed. Seems fair enough, right? The history lies, however, in the period following the passage of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibited discrimination in elections on the basis of race.

The various measures (literacy tests, poll taxes, and constitutional quizzes) that were used to suppress the African-American vote would have barred many Southern white voters from casting a ballot. The solution many States chose was to maintain the voting rights of voters (almost all of whom were white) who had been able to vote before the franchise was extended to African-Americans, plus their lineal descendants. An effective way to suppress the African-American vote.

 Over time the phrase has been somewhat deracialized, but the history is clear, and you may wish to avoid using “grandfathering.”

“Going Postal”

The expression arose in response to a series of violent events at United States Postal Service facilities from 1970 to date, particularly from 1986 to 1993.

The phrase refers to an employee or ex-employee becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry in a workplace environment, often resorting to shooting fellow employees or supervisors.

Generally, the use of the phrase is ill-advised as it makes light of injury and death. It has also been used pejoratively in connection with potential mental health issues.

“Circle the wagons”

A phrase from the era of European settler invasion of the Western USA. Settlers created a defensive ring of wagons in response to attacks by Indigenous warriors defending their land.

Defensive circles of wagons had been used since the 15th Century when Bohemian Hussites fought mounted knights but popular awareness was created by Hollywood. Scores of Westerns featured scenes of settlers’ Conestoga wagons being encircled by bands of whooping and hollering Indians on horseback, embedding the images in the popular imagination.

Today, many consider the European settlement of North America to be a genocidal act and the idea of noble settlers “circling the wagons” to defend against “savages” is ahistorical. “Establishing a defensive perimeter” replaces the phrase nicely.

Bonus:   “Rule of thumb”

Apparently, many of us have fallen for a false origin story for this phrase. As the legend goes, the phrase related to an English law that allowed a man to beat his wife, at the time considered to be chattel, with a stick no wider than his thumb.   The historical background of misogynistic violence made the story credible as 20th Century feminism arose, but no such law has been found in English common or statute law. In fact, the dictionary definition, of “a practical and approximate way of doing or measuring something”[2] has a long history.  

The first known use of the phrase appears in the 1658 work of James Durham, “Heaven Upon Earth”[3]  where the puritan Durham wrote: "many profest [sic] Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb and not by Square and Rule."  

 “Rule of Thumb” is a useful idiom, but be prepared to correct the popular misunderstanding as some may find it offensive.


[1] Oxford Companion to the English Language (2nd Ed.)
[2] Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, Cambridge University Press
[3] https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/rule-of-thumb.html#:~:text=What's%20the%20origin%20of%20the,no%20thicker%20than%20his%20thumb.