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August 1, 2002 - Slangman: Corporate Crime - 2002-07-31

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": August 1, 2002
Re-broadcast on VOA News Now: August 4, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- a timely accounting of some slang related to business fraud.

BUSH: "Every corporate official who has chosen to commit a crime can expect to face the consequences. No more easy money for corporate criminals, just hard time."

RS: "Hard time." That's slang for prison time. That's what President Bush was talking about when he signed a corporate responsibility law on Tuesday.

AA: Well, we called up Slangman David Burke to get the lowdown on some terms we hear when people talk about the current financial scandals. Slangman just happened to have a letter that he says he sent to his mother.

BURKE: "'Dear Slangmom, my vacation was great! Too bad it was so short. Anyway, you won't believe what happened while I was gone. Well, you know that our company has been making a killing each year.' Now, when you 'make a killing,' you don't really kill anything, it just means you make a lot of money. 'We made a killing, but last week the employees and investors were told that the profits of our company suddenly nose-dived.' Which means went down very fast, like an airplane that's about to crash.

"'Well, the first thing I thought was, great, we're all about to get Enroned.' I love this one -- which means to be cheated out of money, because of the big Enron scandal where investors and employees did get cheated out of money. So the last thing you want to do is get Enroned, and this I would say is our most current slang word right now. 'Our company was always in the black,' which means in good financial condition. 'And now suddenly we're in the red?' which is in bad financial condition."

RS: Why black and red? Well, when accountants kept handwritten ledger books, it became traditional to use black ink to record earnings and red ink to record losses.

AA: Now back to Slangman's tale of woe.

BURKE: "'So how would a cash cow' -- which is a profitable company or product -- 'suddenly go belly up?' which means to fail. We say 'belly up,' meaning to fail, because when a fish dies in the water it floats up to the top belly up. We also say 'to tank.' I don't know why, I love that one. 'The company tanked,' or it went 'bust,' which also means it failed miserably. 'Well, it didn't make sense, because business ways always booming' -- a very popular expression meaning when business goes very well.

"'Something was fishy.' Of course, that means suspicious. I think we say that because when something is fishy, a fish that's really old starts to smell, and so it kind of makes your face have a weird look on it, like 'yuck!,' and when something is suspicious you have the same kind of a look. 'Well, thanks to a whistle-blower in the company' -- and a whistle-blower is an informant, somebody who reports you to the authorities, they blow the whistle on you. 'So thanks to a whistle-blower in the company, we discovered that our bean counter was cooking the books.'"

RS: Boy, how's that for a mouthful of slang -- although some people really do talk that way!

BURKE: "A 'bean counter' is a popular word for an accountant. And the bean counter or accountant was 'cooking the books.' Now that means to falsify records. 'Well, not only that, but the bean counter was paying himself under the table.' 'Under the table,' in finances, means to pay yourself without reporting the money.

"'Of course, our bean counter got canned immediately.' 'Canned' is a wonderful expression; we hear it all the time. We also say to 'get sacked,' to 'get booted' or to 'get the boot,' which gives you the image of somebody getting kicked in the backside by a boss, so they get thrown out of the building."

RS: Meaning lost his job ...

AA: In plain English. Slangman David Burke in Los Angeles is the author of close to thirty books on slang and idioms. If you'd like more information about Slangman, or how to order his books, visit his new Web site at

RS: Our Web site is Before we go, we want to thank Nancy Smart, our editor since the beginning. As Nancy rides off into retirement on her new horse, Taj, we wish her happy trails. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Happy Trails"/Daughters of the Purple Sage