The Grammarphobia Blog

The armchair maven

Q: A poster on an Internet message board accused me of being an “armchair business analyst” for questioning the viability of Starbucks. I’m familiar with “armchair quarterback,” but not with the use of “armchair” in other expressions. Have you come across “armchair” used in this general way?

A: The figurative use of “armchair” plus noun (as in “armchair quarterback,” the guy who criticizes the game from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy), is not a new usage.

Believe it or not, “armchair” phrases go back to the 19th century, before TV and beer in cans. And the “quarterback” version arrived late in the game.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “armchair” expressions are “often applied to persons who confine themselves or are addicted to home-made views or criticism of matters in which they take no active part, or of which they have no first-hand knowledge.”

The OED gives these published citations, among others:

1886: “Mr. Chamberlain … met the expostulations … of his moderate allies with sneers at … ‘the arm-chair politicians.’ “

1895: “As an arm-chair professor, I frankly admit my great inferiority as a laboratory-teacher and investigator.”

1896: “The arm-chair critic of politics, war, literature, or finance.”

Football terminology didn’t become part of the expression until the mid-20th century. Here are some early citations from newspaper articles, courtesy again of the OED:

1940: “The folks back home know that pilots know more about flying than the armchair quarterbacks in Washington.”

1952: “Friends said he had done a good deal of armchair quarterbacking as he watched telecasts of last night’s hectic convention session.”

Now, back to my armchair.

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