Small Talk Idiom – “On the Rocks”

Posted On: March 9, 2015

Understanding idioms used in business discussions is important. Possibly, more important is understanding idioms or phrases used in casual discussions in the break room, in transit, or during lunch.

In this series, I’ll share some idiom tutorials by Andrea of Study with Andrea. Today’s idiom is “On The Rocks.” It has two meanings. Take a listen to the video, then follow the tutorial below.


This video is published by Study With Andrea. Embedded with permission.

As Andrea mentioned, “on the rocks” has two meanings. Don’t get too overwhelmed by that. So long as you are paying attention to the conversation at hand, then you will get the context right!

Happy Hour
Let’s say your colleagues in the US invite you out for happy hour. You are at the bar and the bartender could ask you if you’d like that ‘on the rocks’. In this case it means, “Would you like that with ice?” Here “on the rocks” means “ice.”

Colleagues In A Bad Spot in their Relationship
We all know that in the US, it’s not customary to talk about family right off the bat (immediately/when first meeting someone). Once we get to know someone, and in casual one to one conversations (not group discussions), your colleague who has befriended you may discuss his relationship highs or lows. If you were to ask your colleague that is now your friend, “So how’s your wife doing?” Your colleague could answer by saying, “Oh… well.. I did not want to talk about it… but things are a bit rocky right now.” In this case, another way to use “on the rocks” is by saying “rocky” which means “not well.” To this, of course an empathetic response of, “I am sorry to hear that… do you want to talk about it?” may be fitting if you are friendly with the person.

A Project Not Going Well 
This idiom could be used in relation to project work in the office, as well. For instance, a manager could say to his direct reports, “Hey guys, we have to get on the ball! This project is on the rocks… let’s get it back on track! Pronto!”

This message, full of idioms, is actually considered motivational in the US. Meaning of the idioms:
On the ball: organized, ready (“All over the place” an idiom which is something like a synonym.)
On the rocks: in trouble, something which could be “horrible”
On track: on schedule
Pronto: Now (“Like yesterday!”)

So, “Hey guys, we have to get on the ball! This project is on the rocks… let’s get it back on track!” in plain English means, “Hey guys, we have to get organized.. this project is in trouble… let’s get back on schedule. Now!”

To learn about idioms more commonly used in the office during meetings, check out the PDF below.

American English Idioms Used at Work (Sports and other Phrases) from Authentic Journeys


Jennifer Kumar helps Indians and other expats in the US building understanding and empathetic relationships with their American counterparts at work.

Related Posts:
Safe small talk topics by Andrea

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