Q: I was reading The Ladies of Lyndon, a 1923 novel by Margaret Kennedy, when my eyes fell upon the expression “out of it” used to mean isolated or not part of things. I’m surprised that the usage is that old. It sounds so contemporary.
A: Yes, the use of “out of it” to mean isolated or rejected is that old. In fact, it’s even older. Here’s the story.
When the expression “to be out of it” showed up in English writing in the early 19th century, it meant something a bit different—“not involved or included in an action or event,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Dec. 8, 1830, letter by the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth: “Poor Davies Gilbert to whom the place was in every way unsuited is well out of it. I hope he thinks so.” (Gilbert, a Cornish engineer, was succeeded by the Duke of Sussex as president of the Royal Society.)
In the late 19th century, the OED says, the expression came to mean “removed or distant from the centre or heart of something; isolated; uninformed.”
The earliest Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 18, 1884, issue of the Pall Mall Gazette: “Indeed, ‘C’ Troop … has been rather ‘out of it’ in the matter of field service.”
And that’s how the fictional James Clewer, an English artist who travels to Paris to paint, uses it in the 1923 passage that got your attention:
“I used to think that it would be different if I got away and went to Paris. But it wasn’t. Paris was all right for working in. I learnt a lot. But I felt just as out of it there as here.”
In the mid-20th century, the usage took on its contemporary slang sense of “confused, stupefied, or unconscious, esp. after consuming drink or drugs; (also) unable to think or react properly as a result of being tired,” according to the OED.
The dictionary includes a questionable early example that its editors say “appears to have a somewhat different meaning,” though we’ll let you decide for yourself: “One who is extremely happy is on cloud 88 or out of it” (from a 1959 issue of the journal American Speech).
The next Oxford citation, from a 1963 issue of American Speech, clearly uses the expression in the modern slang sense: “Drunk: soused, out of it, stoned, bombed.”