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25 Idioms and Expressions With the Word Work

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Ben has held a life-long interest in language and has a particular interest in the expressions, phrases, and idioms that contribute to it.

Work comes in many forms. It can be physically demanding and mentally challenging. It can also mean hours spent sat behind a computer or on a production line where you feel more like a cog in a wheel than a valued and contributing member of a team.

Work comes in many forms. It can be physically demanding and mentally challenging. It can also mean hours spent sat behind a computer or on a production line where you feel more like a cog in a wheel than a valued and contributing member of a team.

1. Work Like a Beaver

Meaning: a phrase that suggests a person has a great work ethic. To be industrious.

Often heard in the following context: "That new lad is showing great promise; he works like a beaver."

Beavers are known for being industrious creatures. They spend a great deal of time and effort building and maintaining their dams or impoundments.

Beavers are known for being industrious creatures. They spend a great deal of time and effort building and maintaining their dams or impoundments.

2. Work Smarter Not Harder

Meaning: How often have you heard this phrase thrown about at those team meetings and focus groups? One of those expressions suggesting that we need to be smarter, more efficient in our undertakings and that we can achieve the worker's holy grail of getting more from doing less."

3. Work Like a Dream

To say that something worked out far better than you could have hoped.

An adage that is demonstrated by the following statement: "The new electric car is so smooth to drive, and it has a great distance range before recharging—it works like a dream."

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4. The Whole Works

Meaning: all or everything that is understood to be possible.

Example sentence: "If I win the lottery, I will want everything; flash house, fancy cars, holidays, in fact, the whole works."

5. Works Both Ways

Meaning: an idiom that suggests both parties to an agreement or arrangement get something out of it.

Example sentence: "This arrangement works for me in that I demolish the buildings and level the land, and my new partner re-purposes the area building new houses—its works both ways and is good business for us both."

6. Works a Treat

A saying that suggests something performs very well.

Example: "That plant fertilizer works a treat—my garden has gone wild!"

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7. To Work Through the Channels

Meaning: to be methodical in following follow proper procedures and contacts.

Example sentence: "I don't want to go through the entire project only to find that it fails sign-off due to having missed agreement from a stakeholder on a single aspect of the build—we do have to be meticulous in working through the channels."

8. To Get Worked Up About

To become agitated or furious about something. An expression that can also suggest that there is no need to become irate.

Example one: "I was fuming. It was a serious problem and one to get worked up about."

Example two: "It was no big deal, and nothing to get worked up about."

9. Detective Work

To say that something is under investigation.

Often heard in the following context: "The issues were complex, and it took a great deal of detective work to unravel."

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10. It Works for Me

To say that something is perfectly acceptable to you.

Example sentence: "I like the finish on the cabinet worktops; it works for me."

11. Lick of Work

Meaning: a tiny amount of work.

Example being: "I think Jeremy is taking advantage of his teammates—he has barely done a lick of work this past week."

12. To Do the Donkey Work

To carry out work that is tedious or difficult. References the donkey being used to carry heavy loads over treacherous terrain.

Example sentence: "You need to concentrate your efforts on planning for future sales, leave the mundane stuff to others, and let them do the donkey work."

For hundreds of years, people have taken advantage of the donkey's strength and durability to carry heavy, burdensome loads. A practice, thankfully, that is becoming less acceptable to society.

For hundreds of years, people have taken advantage of the donkey's strength and durability to carry heavy, burdensome loads. A practice, thankfully, that is becoming less acceptable to society.

13. Make Short Work of

To complete a job quickly.

Example: "That latest job went like a dream, and we made short work of it."

14. A Spanner in the Works

To disrupt a plan or an activity.

Example sentence: "We were planning to go abroad next week; however, the current Covid-19 rules forbid this and have thrown a spanner in the works."

15. A Nasty Piece of Work

Said of someone who is particularly unpleasant.

For example: "He is so gross. He seems to go out of his way to upset people; he's a nasty piece of work."

16. Good Works

Charitable work or activity carried out with good intentions.

An example being: "She always goes out of her way to support local charities and is the first in line to give her time to help out—she does good works."

17. Work Your Fingers to the Bone

An expression that suggests a person works extremely hard.

Example sentence: "You couldn't ask for a more hard-working laborer; he is always prepared to work his fingers to the bone."

Hands that show the impact of years of hard physical work.

Hands that show the impact of years of hard physical work.

18. Not Safe for Work

To say that what follows is not safe to be heard or seen in a work environment.

Often heard in the following context: "The fire procedures are undocumented, and the fire extinguishers are all untested and unlabelled. This place is a death trap—it's not safe for work and needs to be issued a closure notice.

19. The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands

Meaning: that people should be kept busy. If they are allowed to be idle, they will likely find trivial or meaningless things to do with their time.

Idle hands are always a cue for mischief according to this idiom.

Idle hands are always a cue for mischief according to this idiom.

20. A Piece of Work

This expression is suggesting that a person is malicious or obnoxious.

Example sentence: "I've never known a time when he hasn't gone out of his way to upset those around him; he is a nasty piece of work."

A Poll—it's a Work in Progress

21. Leg Work

To put in the hard work, whether this is a physical or mental activity.

An example being: "Henry deserves his success; he always prepared to put in the leg work, no matter how tedious it may be."

22. Dirty Work

Meaning: describes work that is dull or boring. It also describes dubious activities.

Example one: "I know it's not an easy job, and no one enjoys doing it, but I'm afraid someone has to do the dirty work."

Example two: "He always dodges the job of cleaning those drains. But I'm tired of covering for him. It's time he did his own dirty work."

23. Grunt Work

Tedious or menial work.

Example sentence: "I spend my days digging out ditches. I don't mind so much in the summer, but in winter it is just grunts work."

24. All in a Day's Work

Describes an ordinary day. It also means that you recognize a job well done without overplaying the relevance of it.

An example being: "It's good to know my efforts are appreciated, but it's all in a day's work."

25. To Gum the Works Up

To prevent or interfere with the normal functioning of something.

Example sentence: "The main contractor has pulled his staff from the job for the last two weeks—it has left the build behind schedule and dramatically gummed up the works."

Conclusion

As you might expect, many work-related idioms stress the importance of being diligent and conscientious in your efforts, and these phrases remind us of the virtues of such behavior.

These memorable adages from previous generations also tell us of the importance of aligning yourself with similar like-minded individuals, thus avoiding the negative impacts of working alongside those who are workshy. The idiom "The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands" being an example of this.

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