The Grammarphobia Blog

Idioms delight

Q: I’m confused by the expression “lucked out.” Why does it suggest out of luck when it actually means in luck?

A: “Lucking out” does indeed seem to imply running out of luck, while in fact it means lucking into something. But who says idioms have to make sense?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the idiomatic phrasal verb “to luck out” as meaning “to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation.”

The OED traces the usage back to 1954, so it’s a relatively new one. The expression “luck into,” meaning “to acquire by good fortune,” came along in 1959, according to the OED.

We use a lot of prepositions idiomatically in confusing ways. Why does “drugged out” essentially mean “drugged up”? Why do we “stand down” but “mess up”? Why can we show we’re exhausted by saying “I’m all in” or “I’m all out”?

What’s more, we turn ON an alarm so it will go OFF, and then we turn it OFF when it goes ON. We also fill IN a form that we’re told to fill OUT. It’s no wonder that people new to English have so much trouble with prepositions!

I think we can chalk all this up to the flexibility of English prepositions, which give us endless possibilities for idiomatic expression.

H.W. Fowler, in The King’s English, says there are so many idiomatic uses of prepositions that it would be impossible for dictionaries, grammar books, or usage guides to cite more than “the scantiest selection.” The best way to learn how to use them, he says, is “good reading with the idiomatic eye open.”

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or
Amazon.com.