Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The Migration of “out of pocket”

George Kovac down in Miami, Florida, wrote today about an interesting shift in meaning that I thought any word nerd would be interested in. He writes:

“As you remind us often, language is not logic, and words take on slightly unpredictable nuance or even meaning as they work their way through culture and history. An example I observed happening in my lifetime is the phrase ‘out of pocket’. It originally meant money spent on purchases from third parties. For example, if you break something and pay someone to fix it, you are out of pocket for the cost of the repair. But if you fix it yourself, you are not out of pocket—you have spent your own time and resources.”

“Some time in my adult life the phrase ‘out of pocket’ also came to mean ‘unavailable’ as in ‘I can’t schedule a meeting that week because I will be out of pocket at a conference.’ That usage I find jarring and lacking in any metaphorical grounding. Unless you imagine we inhabit pockets, but that’s just dumb. In that case a more apt metaphor would be “I will be out of burrow.” But that is just a cranky observation on my part, because language moves on its own without fixed or consistent rules, and that is as it should be. Words trope.”

My reply to him was as follows:

“We mostly have pockets with devoted uses. I always keep my wallet in my left rear pocket, my change in my left front, my keys in my right front, and my handkerchief in my right rear pocket. I can understand the connection between pocket and “proper place for”. So, if I’m out of pocket without the my, I am clearly speaking metaphorically of ‘out of my proper place’.”

“On the other hand, ‘out of the pocket’ is common enough football jargon referring to a quarterback, who should remain (as long as possible) ‘in the (quarterback) pocket’, i.e. his proper place, where he should be. Maybe the connection passes through football jargon.”

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