Out of Pocket

Lately I’ve been noticing that the kids nowadays have been saying “out of pocket” to mean someone’s doing something abruptly inappropriate or offensive.

And I’m here thinking, why is this usage so different from the idiom as I know it? I’m always on the side that any native English speaker is correct for idioms and slang. So I did a bit of research and it was a revelation.

I used to work with a lot of Boomers and they would frequently say “I’ll be out of pocket for the next couple of days.” It was a way to tell everyone they’re going to be unreachable and also signal that it’s no one’s business why.

So sure, it’s good to take some time off work and don’t check emails or your phone and don’t have to explain why, everyone deserves some uninterrupted downtime without having to justify it. They’re Boomers, they could be

  • Holed up in a hotel room with a mistress
  • On a fishing boat
  • In Vegas on a bender
  • Spending quality time with their family (lol, hahaha, probably not)
  • Undergoing a colonoscopy

My traditional understanding when you say you’ll be “out of pocket” you’re telling me that you’ll be unresponsive for a period of time and the subtext is it’s for a private reason or something you don’t feel the need to explain or divulge. Shut down the busybodies.

By the way, as Gen-X, I’ve never used the phrase “out of pocket” for my personal circumstances. I tend to give TMI and explain why I won’t be available or can’t respond to email or any messages. Someone’s dead and there’s all those arrangements. Or that one time I had a botched surgery and had a catheter for a week and I’m not coming up to work in the office with that.

But for the kids nowadays, “out of pocket” means someone behaved inappropriately. “What’s that burning smell in the office? Is he really soldering an RC car at his desk? That is so out of pocket.”

That particular usage is from Black English Variation (BEV) and the different origins between the usages are fascinating.

For old white people, it originated from a news desk term.

In the fast-waning newspaper office, the copy chief sits in the crook of a horseshoe-shaped desk, surrounded by copy editors. This is the “pocket.” To keep the flow of proofread copy going, the chief must be “in pocket.” If he goes away for any length of time, he’s “out of the pocket,” unavailable, and things grind to a halt. This became shortened to “out of pocket” on Telexes and faxes.

For black people, it’s a pool reference.

The phrase originated in Black English in the 1940s and was originally a piece of jargon related to playing pool. Being out of pocket is not a good thing, because a shot that goes “out of pocket” or “out of the pocket” means that the offending player misses their next turn.

So younger people have taken up the BEV definition of “out of pocket.” Of course they’re not wrong with this usage. No native English speaker is wrong with common usage even if it confuses older white English majors and they have to figure it out and do a bit of research.

This is a very good example how idioms and language evolve over time within different dialects and cohorts.

If you are an older white person and say you’re going to be “out of pocket” for a couple of days, check your audience because the young’uns will likely take away something completely different from what you meant.

Reference link (this is a long read)