Word Count

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The Many Meanings of "Out of Pocket"

Max Crittenden writes:

I'm seeing some peculiar usage (misuse, to my mind) of the phrase "out of pocket." "My housekeeper has injured her leg and will be out of pocket for a while." "Sorry, I've been out of pocket and haven't gotten to your request." Is anyone else noticing this? To me, "out of pocket" means only "short of money."

"Out of pocket" is one of many expressions with meanings that change depending on context.

Anyone who has an insurance policy with a deductible is probably familiar with the term's most common definition: to lay out one's own money. The Oxford English Dictionary traces "out-of-pocket" (with hyphens) as a noun or adjective to an 1885 law journal: "The plaintiffs incurred various out-of-pocket expenses."

But Crittenden's usage is the oldest, albeit probably the least known to Americans. To be "out of pocket," or short of money, usually because of some transaction, first appeared in 1679, according to the OED: "He was Seven hundred pounds out of pocket." A corollary phrase, "in pocket," having enough money, showed up about 70 years later, the OED says. (Never mind the movies showing people of those olden times carrying money in pouches, not pockets … the word "pocket" itself arises from words for "pouches.") And, of course, there's another meaning to having something "in pocket": A wealthy or stealthy person might have a politician "in his pocket," meaning under his control.

A primarily American meaning of "out of pocket," "to be unavailable," traces to a 1908 O. Henry story, the OED says: "Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can." The Dictionary of American Slang says it first appeared in the mid-1970s: "I'm out of pocket for a bit, but I'll get back at ya."

One more: The American Slang Dictionary (yes, a different slang dictionary) defines "out of pocket" as "out from under someone's control; not manageable. The guy is wild. Completely out of pocket."

Those pockets are handy for other things, too: To "live in each other's pockets" means to be a little too close, or to spend too much time together. The politician who is in someone's pocket might be "lining his pockets" with the proceeds of that relationship. That gift card Aunt Maude gave you for graduation might be "burning a hole in your pocket," meaning you're eager to use it. And if you have "deep pockets," you might have enough money to share with others.

Well, that may not pick "pockets" clean, but it's a start.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.