The Grammarphobia Blog

Out of pocket, revisited

Q: I was going to ask you about the origins of the phrase “out of pocket,” but instead searched for it on your site first. I found that you posted back in 2007, but had no real evidence on how the “unavailable” meaning evolved. I wonder if you’ve been able to find anything out since then? I’ve had two people use the phrase in the past week, and it has made me curious.

A: Since we wrote that blog entry, the Oxford English Dictionary has come up with an antedating – that is, an earlier appearance in print – of the phrase “out of pocket” in the sense of “out of reach, absent, unavailable.”

We previously reported that this sense of the phrase dates from 1946. But now the OED has found the expression in an O. Henry story, “Buried Treasure,” published in Ainslee’s magazine in July 1908.

Here’s the quotation: “Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.”

So there’s an earlier date for the phrase, but we have nothing new to offer as far as the derivation.

We can only repeat that the expression “to have someone in your pocket,” which dates from the early 1600s, means to have him under your control.

And maybe that’s why someone who’s no longer under your control or scrutiny is said to be “out of pocket.” Just speculation on our part.

At any rate, we all seem to have cell phones in our  pockets these days, so it’s rarer to actually be out of pocket.

[Update, April 24, 2014. A reader writes: I can back you up on the reporter’s use of ‘out of pocket’ for being away from a phone. I was the Tulsa UPI bureau chief in the late ’70s and whenever we were out of the office and away from a phone (this was way before cell phones and just barely after radio telephones), we would message the Dallas Com Center on the teletype: ‘outta pocket.’ Another phrase I remember is ‘outstepping lunch.’ No clue as to the origin of ‘out of pocket,’ but I got the feeling it was an expression common among the old time Unipressers.”]

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.