Out of pocket?
April 3, 2008 6:05 AM   Subscribe

What does the phrase "out of pocket" mean, and what's its origin?

At least twice in the past week I've heard the phrase "out of pocket" used as follows:

"Sorry I didn't reply to your e-mail--I was out of pocket."

"I'm going to be out of pocket for the next couple of days."

I have no clear idea what this expression means. Does it mean the same thing as "out of touch"? Or is there a connotation of illness attached (as I thought at first--though if that's the case, then it wouldn't make sense to say you're going to be out of pocket in the future). Also, does it have a connotation of inconvenience attached to it? Does one want to be "out of pocket," or not?

If it's a regional usage, I live in New Jersey, for what it's worth.
posted by Prospero to Grab Bag (66 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa, really? The only use of "out of pocket" I've in terms of a cost the speaker actually had to pay. E.g. "I only had $50 per diem for the trip, so I had to cover the last $10 of dinner out of pocket."

The usage you're describing I've never heard of before.
posted by Nelsormensch at 6:10 AM on April 3, 2008

In the UK at least it relates to ready access to money (or lack thereof). If you are "out of pocket" on a deal it means that you have lost money on it. If you claim "out of pocket" expenses then this relates to small claims such as those for sandwiches or newpapers.
posted by rongorongo at 6:13 AM on April 3, 2008

Weird, we use the phrase (in New Zealand) to refer to losing money covering an expense -- possibly an unexpected one, or one that someone else should perhaps have covered, or when you expected to make money, but lost it instead.
posted by The Monkey at 6:13 AM on April 3, 2008

Contraction of "out of pocket expenses" - expenses that you pay out of your own pocket.
posted by Leon at 6:17 AM on April 3, 2008

If you replace "pocket" with the word "town" then both of your examples make sense. I know the two words sound nothing alike, but perhaps you misheard?
posted by aheckler at 6:18 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Quoth the Urban Dictionary:

"Somehow over the past half year or so, "out of pocket" has become a new business catchphrase meaning "unreachable, out of communication", which is incorrect."

But Nelsormensch and The Monkey think of it the way I thought of it. The usage you reference is really bizarre.
posted by fogster at 6:19 AM on April 3, 2008

I always took it as Nelsormensch has suggested being related to expenses, usually in relation to work. In the UK if that helps.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 6:19 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: This usage definitely exists. It is even in the OED, meaning "out of reach, absent, unavailable." It is considered to be U.S. usage. Some quotations from the OED:
1946 Sunday Times-Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) 12 May I. 7/1 [They] told citizens here that somebody was ‘out of pocket’ in Bowie and Miller counties the nights of the killings, and urged them to recall whether anyone they knew was missing on those dates. 1973 J. PETERSON Sicilian Slaughter 53 Her hands shook as she dialed. But her connection was out of pocket. 1974 Anderson (S. Carolina) Independent 20 Apr. 1A/1 If you..have ever been sick and the only doctor is out of pocket for the weekend, then you know we need more doctors. 2002 A. PHILLIPS Prague III. viii. 229 Five-day weekend for me, Charlie, starting in eighteen minutes. I'll be out of pocket until Tuesday.
No detailed etymological information.
posted by grouse at 6:21 AM on April 3, 2008

The same usage is popular here in the Deep South.

It means the person you are referring to is unavailable and cannot be reached at the moment by anyone.

It is the opposite of being "in the pocket" of someone, like a politician, which is a phrase that means to be under a person's direct influence.
posted by Lownotes at 6:21 AM on April 3, 2008

Like others above, I've only heard the phrase used to refer to expenses paid with one's own money, as opposed to someone else's.

"My boss wouldn't cover my hotel room on that business trip, so I had to pay for it out of pocket."

"If you'll pay for your food out of pocket, I'll reimburse you later."

This makes perfect sense as an idiom, since people usually keep their own money in their pocket. It's pretty self-explanatory.

Your use in the question? I've never heard of it before, and from context it would seem to mean "out of contact" or "incommunicado," but it doesn't make any sense to me.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:22 AM on April 3, 2008

On lack of preview, this is really bizarre, and I suspect time travel is involved somehow.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:24 AM on April 3, 2008

It means unavailable. Generally used in a business setting.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:26 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: A Word Detective column covers this meaning of "out of pocket":

around 1974 "out of pocket" also started being used to mean "out of touch" or "unavailable." No one seems to know exactly why this sense arose or what the "pocket" in this case might be. Personally, I suspect that it's a bad translation of some French phrase. In any case, this sense of "out of pocket" is not, as far as I can tell, widely used. A more common phrase meaning the same thing is "out of the loop," which first appeared around 1983 and is probably rooted in computer terminology.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:26 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: Its a black colloquial usage thats related to out of hand. It differs in that out of hand is going out of control and out of pocket is leaving the realm of acceptable behavior. "don't get out of pocket with me"
posted by Rubbstone at 6:27 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: "Out of pocket" used to mean "unreachable" has been pervasive in the finance industry for as long as I've been out of college (5 years). It's horrible, but it's not as bad as "bio-break" (meaning, a bathroom-break).

I assumed it was a football reference; if the quarterback leaves the pocket, he is usually out on his own without help from teammates. But this was just my initial association and I have no reason to believe it is the true origin of the phrase.
posted by mullacc at 6:30 AM on April 3, 2008

My corporate clients use it to mean "unavailable." I have no idea why it took on that meaning, though it sort of suggests that if you're in the office, you're in "the pocket" and therefore available for use, like a set of keys, I guess.
posted by PatoPata at 6:36 AM on April 3, 2008

It's fairly common around here, but I think the origin is military.
posted by electroboy at 6:40 AM on April 3, 2008

I hear it used to mean "unreachable" somewhat frequently in the nonprofit world - usually by upper-management folks, whatever that might mean. (Maybe they're more likely to be hanging out w/ mullacc's financial industry people. I will be unhappy if I start hearing 'bio-break.') (Also makes it harder to confront them with "why are you using that phrase in such a strange way?")
posted by yarrow at 6:51 AM on April 3, 2008

I use to work for a company in Virginia, and people on my team would use this phrase to mean that they were unavailable for work purposes. The team I worked on was very support centric - think blackberrys and getting paged at 3am - so it was a big deal to be out of pocket sometimes.
posted by o0dano0o at 6:55 AM on April 3, 2008

It probably started with someone who misused the phrase to mean "out of touch". Then of course, people who want to sound hip or suck up to that person who misused the phrase, picked it up.

I worked with a plant manager who was, frankly, an idiot. Glad-handing, back-slapping, good-ol'-boy. One of those people whose personality, good or bad, fills a room. His malapropisms would fill a book. Over the three years I worked with that plant, I watch people with masters' degrees start using his mis-spoken phrases, then get to the point that they were as utterly unintelligible as he was on account of misused phrasing.

(he also had one of the most successful comb-overs I've ever seen - the hair on the sides of his head were like fur, and we only figured out he was completely bald on top in a tornado-fore gale.)
posted by notsnot at 6:55 AM on April 3, 2008

I have no source but general background knowledge from my office, but I've always taken "out of pocket" not necessarily as COMPLETELY unreachable, just being generally hard to reach (esp. while traveling). When someone is out of pocket in my office, it refers to only having access to things that the can literally take out of their pocket - cell phone, blackberry, etc. (and even then in a limited fashion).
posted by Someone has just shot your horse! at 6:56 AM on April 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers. In both instances above I heard the phrase used in a corporate setting (at a non-profit, even) so it must be that in my particular case, it's fairly recent business-speak for "unreachable."
posted by Prospero at 6:58 AM on April 3, 2008

That's ugly... Seconding the likelihood of a military or sports origin, where "pocket" can have a place meaning. Seems that "pocket" is coming to mean the best, the most effective, the right place to be.

Which would make MeFi the internet's pocket.
posted by genesta at 6:59 AM on April 3, 2008

I don't think it's terribly recent corporate speak; I've been hearing folks (mostly in and around NYC ad agencies) use the phrase meaning "out of communication" since the early 90s.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:03 AM on April 3, 2008

How strange--I heard this expression for the first time just a week or so ago in an e-mail from a friend, who said "The trial is coming up on April 7th. I'll be pretty much out of pocket until then." It sounds wrong to my ears.
posted by Enroute at 7:04 AM on April 3, 2008

How interesting! The first time I'd ever heard a co-worker use "out of pocket" to mean that she would be unreachable or difficult to reach it was from someone who was married to someone who had spent a significant amount of time in the military, spent serious time in Alabama, and who had worked with the financial industry.

Me, I've always used "out of pocket" to mean that I had expenses that I paid from personal funds.
posted by salsamander at 7:13 AM on April 3, 2008

I encountered this phrase for the first time watching season 1 of The Wire. I believe it was used to say "A witness we had cooperating with us has disappeared." and in other cases was used in a more general sense of "We no longer have influence over this person, he's playing his own game now and it's out of our control."
posted by jbrjake at 7:16 AM on April 3, 2008

Very interesting! I'd never heard or read this particular usage, and I'm glad to have my horizons expanded. Let me just point out, for those who think it's recent, that it goes back to the WWII period (see grouse's OED citations above). I'm guessing it was originally military, but I'd love to see an early usage that made the metaphor clear.

(As always, it puzzles me that people are so quick to deplore a usage that isn't their own. Why is this "ugly" or "misused"? It's just not in your dialect. If it were, it would seem perfectly normal to you.)
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on April 3, 2008

I had only known "out of pocket" as a lead-in to the word "expenses" up until 2004, when I heard a friend use it to mean "unreachable." It struck me as odd then, and I had to ask her what it meant. I blogged about it, and heard from other people who also thought it sounded odd, but got attestations of its use in the UK and the Netherlands.

One of my commenters offered this bit of folk-etymology: "This use of the phrase started in the southern and southwestern US, and is still more common there than elsewhere. It comes from the game of pool, in which an “out of pocket” shot - a player fails to sink a ball into a pocket - means a missed turn. Therefore, “I am not available” (to play my turn). The phrase was also used by US Afro-Americans in the 1940s-70s to refer to someone acting in an unacceptable or tasteless manner."

I don't buy that myself. It seems more likely to me that someone misspoke "out of touch" and the phrase stuck. But I present it FWIW.
posted by adamrice at 7:37 AM on April 3, 2008

I worked at an answering service in the late 80s in Austin, Texas. The usage of 'out of pocket' to mean unavailable was widespread among our clients, who included doctors, lawyers, service people and real estate managers among others.
posted by notbuddha at 7:38 AM on April 3, 2008

As always, it puzzles me that people are so quick to deplore a usage that isn't their own. Why is this "ugly" or "misused"? It's just not in your dialect. If it were, it would seem perfectly normal to you.

I don't understand this either. I am fairly familiar with this usage, to the point that if you had asked me what "out of pocket" meant without any context yesterday, I would have given the definition at issue rather than one that has to do with expenses.
posted by grouse at 7:39 AM on April 3, 2008

I hear it used locally-to mean unavailable=but mostly from a friend of mine who is not from around here originally.
posted by konolia at 7:43 AM on April 3, 2008

Using "out of pocket" to mean "unreachable" or "hard to reach" has been in standard use in Silicon Valley for at least the last 8 years, possibly longer.
posted by dws at 7:45 AM on April 3, 2008

Musicians talk about being in the pocket/playing in the pocket.
posted by tomcooke at 8:03 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Saying you are "out of pocket" to mean "out of the office and unavailable" is widespread in the US business community. I have assumed it derives from an application of accounting jargon ("out of pocket" meaning money spent or lost) to time on one's personal calendar (e.g., next week is time spent or lost at a boring conference, and hence the time is "out of pocket" for me). I have absolutely no authority for this assumption.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 8:04 AM on April 3, 2008

I had almost the opposite impression of the meaning - my old boss said this and i thought it meant he was working from his pocket - e.g. his blackberry was kept in his pocket, so he was in touch, but out of the office.... maybe i'm just screwed up in my thinking.
posted by pithy comment at 8:04 AM on April 3, 2008

Like jbrjake, I also heard it for the first time on The Wire. I heard it used a couple times and interpreted the meaning variously as "not under surveillance because we can't find the person," "not cooperating with police anymore," "out of prison (pocket= cell) and not watchable or reachable."

I haven't heard it used in normal life here in NYC, but if I did, I'd assume it meant "not reachable."
posted by rmless at 8:06 AM on April 3, 2008

I frequently hear it used in [very very large corporation X] to mean "out of the office/unavailable" and more specifically, the phrase is used when the person won't be checking email/voice mail.
posted by odi.et.amo at 8:09 AM on April 3, 2008

I'm going to go along with mallett, my first thought was that it was a football reference.
posted by smitt at 8:10 AM on April 3, 2008

The first time I heard it was in 1990 in Lubbock, TX. I've been using it ever since, and had no idea it was not so widespread.
posted by drinkcoffee at 8:12 AM on April 3, 2008

A Word Detective column covers this meaning of "out of pocket":

A later Word Detective column tentatively supports the idea that the football origin may be the right one.
posted by tomcooke at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: Direct link to relevant part of column
posted by tomcooke at 8:21 AM on April 3, 2008

I first heard the usage in 1995 while on a gig that included a slew of Price Waterhouse consultants. The PW guys had a plethora of jargon-- I remember an early client meeting at which they collectively used "stone soup," "straw man," twenty-four seven" and "out of pocket"-- I had to pull a guy to the side afterwards to figure out what the hell they were talking about.

The PW guy explained "out of pocket" as away from work (unreachable, generally), as out-of-pocket expenses meant you were "on your own." It's a term I've heard many times since in the business world in a variety of cities.
posted by F Mackenzie at 8:25 AM on April 3, 2008

out-of-pocket expenses meant you were "on your own."

This makes sense.
posted by odi.et.amo at 8:28 AM on April 3, 2008

I've heard out-of-pocket (with this meaning) since I was a child in central Texas in the late 70's. It was used in my family, which were all farmers until my father's generation, except for time spent in the military. I always assumed it had some kind of rural, Southern roots. My granddad definitely didn't get it from businessmen in the 90's.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:42 AM on April 3, 2008

Check out the entry in the DARE. They trace the meaning "unavailable, out-of-place" back to 1967.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:46 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: Wow, I am really surprised by the range of responses. The only way I have ever heard the phrase out-of-pocket used is in the black community in Philly to mean acting out in a way that is sort of ghetto or out of line. As in, "that bitch is out of pocket," to describe a woman who just said something unnecessarily crude or offensive or, "that shit's out of pocket," to describe something flimsy, cheap, garish, etc. Sort of along the lines of "from hunger," in the latter example.
posted by The Straightener at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: Logical or not, some people have been using “out of pocket” to mean “unavailable, absent, out of place” for more than 30 years, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English. The usage originated, or at least is most common in, the South and lower Midwest. It seems to have grown out of older expressions like “living out of each other’s pockets” or “in one another’s pocket,” said of people who are on close terms or live close together. That might explain why “out of pocket,” curiously enough, always refers to people, not things. For instance, nobody says “My glasses are out of pocket”—which would be more logical—to mean the glasses are missing.
Although “out of pocket” in this sense has been around for decades and sometimes even turns up in print, no dictionary of standard American English gives any relevant definition. All the major ones agree with you that the expression is about having lost money or being broke. In these older senses, “out of pocket” goes back hundreds of years. (Here’s Congreve, from 1693: “But, egad, I’m a little out of pocket at present.”) Some current dictionaries insist that they present English the way most people use it, rather than the way somebody thinks it ought to be used. Evidently they’re behind the times in how they treat this expression.

posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:53 AM on April 3, 2008

no dictionary of standard American English gives any relevant definition

No longer accurate as it has been included in the OED as American usage, and has quotations back to the 1946.
posted by grouse at 8:59 AM on April 3, 2008

I suspect it's lexical drift -- I have heard it used as meaning "unavailable" fairly often, but usually in a military/police context, referring to somebody else.

"The suspect is out of pocket at the moment."

This makes a certain amount of sense -- "in pocket" means you can access the person readily, "out of pocket" means beyond your reach.

Referring to yourself as "out of pocket" seems bizarre -- even in the "unavailable" sense of the word, it means that you can't get ahold of yourself, at least according to the standard "unavailable" use of the expression.

Probably some jargon-crazed Blackberry types heard it somewhere and went to town.
posted by Shepherd at 9:03 AM on April 3, 2008

I've heard it used in the business sense (meaning, unavailable), and also while playing rugby. In rugby 7s, you were 'in the pocket' when you were ~ 5-10 meters behind the player with the ball, so that they could pass to you rather than going into contact if they ran in to trouble. If you were 'out of pocket', you got yelled when the ball was turned over.
posted by wearyaswater at 9:06 AM on April 3, 2008

Apparently it is mainstream usage enough for a major(?) newspaper to use it: Favre stays in touch
posted by JJtheJetPlane at 9:14 AM on April 3, 2008

A former boss of mine (about 5 years ago) used to say he was going to be "out of the box" to mean he would be unavailable. I don't know if he was just making up his own phrases, or if that's a legitimate variation on "out of pocket."
posted by amro at 9:20 AM on April 3, 2008

I work in academia. I've often heard (and used) the phrase to mean "pay for [item] myself," with the hope (if not the actual expectation) for some reimbursement or write-off. This is an especially common practice in public universities, where procurement can be as complicated as military practice (since the latter system, in large part, has generally evolved from practices in the former, especially at larger institutions).

It wasn't until I moved to NJ about three years ago that I started to hear the phrase to mean "unreachable." So thanks a lot for this post; up until now, I had just assumed that folks who used the phrase in this way were simply misusing the phrase.
posted by deejay jaydee at 9:21 AM on April 3, 2008

aside from money, i take it to mean working from your smartphone/pda

"I'm sorry I didn't get back to you, I'm working out of pocket this week and I had poor connection"."
posted by phritosan at 9:48 AM on April 3, 2008

The first time I've heard it used was in a Too $hort song:

"I keep my foot in your ass and wouldn't give a fuck
Get out of pocket, bitch you gettin' beat up"

I wasn't really sure either.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:35 AM on April 3, 2008

It seems to have grown out of older expressions like “living out of each other’s pockets” or “in one another’s pocket,” said of people who are on close terms or live close together.

That makes zero sense to me. This has nothing to do with that sense; "I'll be out of pocket" (note: not "out of your/his/someone's pocket") doesn't mean "I won't be on close terms (with you/him/whoever)," it means "I'll be out of reach." I wish people wouldn't be in such a hurry to come up with some vaguely appealing "explanation" just so they won't have to suffer from not having an answer for something.

misusing the phrase.

That thread is one of the biggest shitpiles of chatfilter I've ever seen left to fester in AskMe, and I beg everyone not to take seriously anything said in it. The fact that X hates the expression Y with a passion should be of interest only to X and his or her shrink.

posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on April 3, 2008

Not sure if another data point is useful by now, but I first heard this used to mean "out of touch" at least 10 years ago. I hear it and sometimes use it myself in various circumstances (corporate, personal, online communities) relatively often. (I live in Midwest US, if that matters.)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:59 AM on April 3, 2008

The only person I've ever heard use it is one of my clients who lives in New Jersey (I'm in Chicago.) I figured it was a regional colloquialism.
posted by macadamiaranch at 1:43 PM on April 3, 2008

Ditto on the money thing. West coast for a decade. 'out of pocket' is stuff that you won't get reimbursed for. Booze, hookers, etc. business stuff. If you can't put it on your expense account it's "out of pocket". I don't get the 'unreachable' vibe at all. I've never yet heard "out of pocket" to mean 'unreachable', "out of pocket" is sitting at the bar buying drinks.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:18 PM on April 3, 2008

Out of pocket (sometimes hyphenated: out-of-pocket) is a phrase frequently seen in health insurance. It's your deductible, co-payments, etc. Typically, a plan would define "Maximum Out Of Pocket Expenses" or something with similar phrasing in the Plan Documents.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:12 PM on April 3, 2008

I've never heard it used this way either. Either in Virginia, New York, or California, the 3 places I've live. I only know it for expenses that you have to pay for yourself.

It sounds wrong to my ears, somehow.
posted by MythMaker at 5:17 PM on April 3, 2008

Sounds odd to me as well, but at my office it's used when execs are unreachable. Typically, they just don't want it said that they're on vacation. It can be also mean they're doing something business-related, but not available by blackberry or cell phone. I've never heard the expression prior to my current job - I think FMackenzie's answer makes the most sense.

Damned office jargon.
posted by Space Kitty at 8:30 PM on April 3, 2008

Get out of pocket, bitch you gettin' beat up

That could also be "get out of my pocket", which would be a warning to stop sponging or stop stealing from me. Or you. Either way you're getting beat up.
posted by electroboy at 6:41 AM on April 4, 2008

I spent half my childhood on Maui, and the other half in Central Pennsylvania. I then went to work in Maryland, and since 1998 have been in Northern California.

Until about five years ago, the only use I'd ever heard of "out of pocket" was to refer to expenses, as in "out-of-pocket expenses". Then, five years ago, a new executive showed up at our company who used it to mean "out of touch/unavailable". I was so surprised by this that I assumed it was specific to her, but apparently it's not.

For what it's worth, I can't stand the use of "out of pocket" to mean "out of touch" or "unavailable", but, then again, people who use "impact" as a verb make me want to beat them with a shovel, too.
posted by scrump at 11:40 AM on April 4, 2008

Other than the standard meaning of paying for something from your own money, I remembered hearing it used in the documentary "American Pimp" (part 6 on YouTube at about 3:38), meaning a prostitute that talks to or looks at a rival pimp. Which in some ways is the same as leaving your designated area or being out of range.

I kind of enjoy the thought of these middle-manager type business people using a phrase that originated on the streets.
My boss uses "out of pocket" often when he goes out of town, and my mind flashes to that film every time. I picture him sitting in a hotel with a hoes on either side.
posted by vewystwange at 8:06 PM on April 5, 2008

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