The Grammarphobia Blog

Out of the question

Q: Every once in a while an expression that I’ve heard all my life suddenly sounds strange. Why, for example, do we refer to something unthinkable or impossible as “out of the question”?

A: When the word “question” showed up in English in the early 1200s, it meant (as it does today) something that’s asked about, discussed, or debated.

English adopted the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from Latin. In classical Latin, a quaestio was, among other things, a subject for discussion, which is a clue to the expression you’re asking about.

When “out of the question” first showed up in the early 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “not relevant to the matter under discussion.”

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from a 1607 religious tract in which the English Puritan clergyman Robert Parker argues that the effective use of the sign of imposing hands (that is, the laying on of hands) “is out of the question.”

And here’s an example from A Defence of the Right of Kings, a 1642 tract in which Edward Forest attacks the writings of the Jesuit priest Robert Persons:

“This cunning and curious Composer of Bookes, and Contriuer of cases, doth in this his chiefe proposition, worke himself quite out of the question.”

Over the years, according to the dictionary, the expression came to mean “not to be considered or countenanced; impossible.”

This is an example of the new usage from The History of Betsy Thoughtless, a 1751 novel by Eliza Haywood: “A marriage with miss Betsy was, therefore, now quite out of the question with him.”

The OED’s latest citation is from James Ryan’s 1997 novel Dismantling Mr Doyle: “And the yellow and red checkered head scarf Mrs Doyle produced as a possible necktie was, he insisted, out of the question altogether.”

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