What is business? Definition and meaning

The English word ‘business’ has several meanings, depending on its context or which preposition precedes or follows it. It can mean the activity of buying and selling goods and services, a particular company or firm, a whole market sector, to be away working, as well as themes, issues, affairs or situations to be dealt with, focused on or discussed.

The term comes from the Old English ‘bisignis’, which meant ‘anxiety, care, occupation’. ‘Bisignis’ came from ‘bisig’, which meant ‘busy, occupied, diligent, anxious, careful.’ The word gradually evolved into ‘busyness’ and then into its modern spelling with all its current meanings. Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxons (up to about 1150).

Some meanings of ‘business’:

The buying and selling of goods and services: as in “They do not work in the public sector, they are in business.”

BusinessThe word business has a many different meanings.

A company or firm: a commercial enterprise that buys and sells goods and services in the pursuit of profit.

Businesses (meaning companies) are widespread in free-market economies. Most of them are privately owned. In some countries, strategic businesses such as energy and transport are state owned.



Out of businesses come products, services and jobs. Most of what we buy comes from businesses. A lot of what we do is part of many possible types of businesses.

Businesses might be profit-oriented or not-for-profit.

A whole market sector: as in “It has been a bad year for the oil business.” Examples of different sectors are agriculture, mining, finance, IT, publishing, manufacturing, real estate, construction, retailing, wholesale and distribution, transportation, utilities, and services.

Compound forms, such as agribusiness represent subsets of the word’s broader meaning.

To be away/busy working: as in “Fred is in Japan on business.”

An issue, affair, theme, situation that requires attention or discussion: as in “Dealing with all the red tape after my father died was a time-consuming business.”



A class of air travel: as in “John always travels business class when he flies. He says economy (coach) is too uncomfortable and first class is too expensive.”

To describe levels of sales: as in “Business is good this year. We have just posted an increase of 12% in sales compared to last year.”

To express a right: as in “He had no business talking to her that way.”

Patronage or commercial dealings: meaning to stop being supplier’s customer, as in “After hearing about how that supplier treated some of its smaller customers, Mary decided to take her business elsewhere.”

A scolding, a telling off: as in “My boss gave the the business for not meeting the deadline.”

To be serious: as in “I mean business.” (I am not joking)

A bowel movement when talking about pets: as in “My dog takes ages to do his business when he hears fireworks.

According to the FT Lexicon com, business is:

“The production, buying, and selling of goods or services for profit.”

Notable quotes

Richard Branson pic“Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.” (Richard Branson, the British businessman and investor who founded the Virgin Group)

Barry Rosenstein, an American hedge fund manage, once gave the following warning:

“I’ve seen too many businesses run into the ground by impressive people who start to think they’re smarter than everyone else. There are enough ways to screw up in business without bringing it on yourself because of ego.”

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company said:

“A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.”

Video – What is a business?

This video provides a clear explanation of the features common to all businesses. It takes the viewer on a tour of a toy company and explains how the staff deal with day-to-day problems. It looks at how businesses are organized, company structures, and their aims and objectives.