Office Speak: "Sharpen Your Pencil"

I’ve decided that it’s time to call out some of the Office Speak that I hear every day, and thought I would start with this one:

You need to sharpen your pencil

The context for this phrase is almost exclusively negotiations. It’s normally used as a way of saying that the cost of something needs to be reduced.

I suspect that the history of the phrase has got something to do with people going back to look at a set of costs trying to decide which ones are reduced or removed. Traditionally you’d do that with a pencil, or pen and a pencil.

In these days of spreadsheets the phrase seems a bit outdated and increasingly irrelevant, yet it’s use seems to be blossoming. This phrase is not unique in Office Speak in this regard – does anyone know why it’s a benchmark?

The use of phrases like this fascinate me. It’s clearly just as easy to say “reduce your price” as it is to say “sharpen your pencil” so it’s use has got nothing to do with creating a shorthand. I suspect that continued use has more to do with the emotional response of painting a picture; “Sharpen your pencil” sounds more dramatic than “reduce your price”.

What’s your emotional response to this phrase?

8 thoughts on “Office Speak: "Sharpen Your Pencil"”

  1. I reflexively thought it meant something like “make yourself smarter” or “restructure your mind.” That would be a far better use of the phrase in my humble opinion.


  2. I’m in my fifties. The expression has always had a connection with a lower price. I’ve been told that I’d need to sharpen my pencil…and I’ve told people they would need to sharpen theirs. The origin must tie to how we used to calculate pricing and margins after lengthy discussions using…pencil and paper.


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