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under the table American English

Meaning: If something is done under the table, it's done secretly, usually because it's illegal or unethical.

For example:

  • If I do any overtime, can you pay me under the table so I won't have pay tax on it.

  • If you make under-the-table payments to customs officials, you can get goods through the port without having them inspected.

Note: If this idiom is used to qualify a noun or a noun phrase, hyphens must be used, as in "under-the-table payments".

Origin: Probably related to the fact that if a package or an envelope is passed under a table, other people cannot easily see what's going on.

Variety: This idiom is typically used in American English but may be used in other varieties of English too.

Quick Quiz:

Newspapers reported that some basketball referees have received under-the-table payments for
  1. refereeing their games
  2. influencing the score in some games
  3. playing golf in their free time

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