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Are you in our wheelhouse?

Q: I’ve noticed the term “wheelhouse” used (or misused) in strange ways. For example, a boxer is said to be within his opponent’s “wheelhouse” or reach. And a politician’s sphere of influence is his “wheelhouse.” Thanks for any information you can render.

A: The noun “wheelhouse” has had quite a few meanings over the last 200 years. You’ve noticed a couple of recent, figurative usages that emerged in the 20th century.

Are they misuses? No, just idioms, or peculiarities of language, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

The Oxford English Dictionary says “wheel-house” (spelled “wheelhouse” in most American dictionaries) was first recorded in the early 19th century when it meant a building for storing cart wheels.

The dictionary’s only citation for this sense of the word appeared in an 1808 book about agriculture in the English county of Devon: “The wheel-house under the barn, 25 feet square.”

The word’s principal sense emerged in the mid-19th century, when it meant “a structure enclosing a large wheel,” like a steering wheel, water wheel, or paddle wheel.

Thus, a “wheelhouse” could be a pilothouse on a boat or ship, a part of a mill, or “the paddle-box of a steam-boat,” the OED says.

Oxford has several citations for these uses of the word. The earliest is from the American writer Joseph Holt Ingraham’s travel memoir The South-west (1835):

“The pilot (as the helms-man is here termed) stands in his lonely wheel-house.”

In his book When Charles I Was King (1896), Joseph Smith Fletcher uses the term in reference to a structure for a water wheel: “The mill at Wentbridge, where the stream was pouring through the wheel-house like a cataract.”

The OED’s most recent example is this 1976 citation from a newspaper in Southampton, England, the Southern Evening Echo: “On the roof of the main building is a full size replica of a ship’s wheelhouse which is used for training.”

But “wheelhouse” didn’t stop there. December 2013 draft additions to the OED record a pair of 20th-century meanings.  

The first originated in baseball, where “wheelhouse” means “the area of the strike zone where a particular batter is able to hit the ball most forcefully or successfully.” The dictionary describes this usage as North American.

 The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1959 sports story in the San Francisco Chronicle: “He had a couple that came right into the wheelhouse—the kind he used to knock out of sight—and he fouled ’em off.”

Another newspaper, the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald, provided this 1998 example: “It was a great play. … I just gave him a yell and he put it in my wheelhouse and I got a good shot off.”

And H. G. (Buzz) Bissinger used the word in his baseball book Three Nights in August (2006): “He’ll pound any pitch that ventures into his wheelhouse.”

The term leapt from sportswriting to everyday language in the 1980s. In this new, figurative sense, “wheelhouse” means “the field in which a person excels; one’s strongest interest or ability,” the OED says.

Oxford has several colorful examples of this new sense of the word:

1987:  “He told me he … couldn’t play reggae. Of course he could, but it wasn’t his wheelhouse, and he wanted to keep his playing honest” (from the magazine Musician).

1998: “Here was Brooklyn congressman Chuck Schumer speaking at NYU about gun control, his wheelhouse issue” (from New York Magazine).

2004: “When you’re doing a romantic comedy, you’re in Meg Ryan’s wheelhouse” (from Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures).

2010: “ ‘This is right in our wheelhouse,’ said … Apache’s chairman and chief executive, in an interview. ‘This is what we do for a living’ ” (from the Wall Street Journal).

This seems like a logical progression for “wheelhouse”—from a captain’s domain to a hitter’s sweet spot to anyone’s strong suit or chief interest.

As for your examples, the reference to a boxer’s “wheelhouse” seems to be an expansion of baseball’s sweet-spot sense while the use of the term for a politician’s sphere of influence seems to fall under the strong-suit sense.

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