Behind the Eight Ball – Meaning and Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Behind the eight ball means finding yourself in a hard situation, like being caught between a rock and a hard place. When you’re behind the eight ball, you’re in a pickle. And not the fun kind that pairs well with a sandwich. This idiom originally came from the world of pool (or billiards). In certain variations of the game, getting stuck behind the 8-ball can make your next shot tricky, hence the phrase’s leap from the pool hall to everyday language.

Idioms are fixed expressions whose meanings aren’t directly deducible from the words that make them up. Instead, they paint vivid pictures or evoke certain feelings that go beyond their literal interpretations. They infuse our conversations with depth, color, and cultural context, enabling us to show complex ideas or emotions efficiently. Keep reading for a crash course on the meaning, origin, and usage of being behind the eight ball with some real-world examples.

Behind the eight ball means one is placed in a difficult situation that which one is unlikely to escape. If a person is behind the eight ball, they may be in an uncomfortable position. According to the McGraw-Hill Companies, the American-English phrase simply means “in trouble.” It alludes to the eight ball in pool, which can penalize the player if it’s touched. 

Behind the Eight Ball – Meaning and Origin

Origin of the Phrase ‘Behind the Eight Ball?’

The idiom behind the eight ball was first printed in American newspapers in the 1920s. It was derived from the game of pool or pocket billiards. One version of the pool is the game of Eight Ball, in which the numbered balls must be pocketed in numerical order except for the eight ball. 

In this game, the players use two sets of patterned and colored balls. It also includes the billiard cue ball and the black ball. 

The game starts with a legal break, where the player must pocket an object ball or let at least four numbered balls to the rail. 

If the cue ball accidentally hits the eighth ball or the black ball, that is a foul shot. You cannot create a direct shot at the ball since the black ball is becoming an obstruction. If the eight ball is pocketed, the game is lost. 

One strategy in eight ball is to clear the ball in trouble early with the white cue ball, including all colored balls in a cluster. Doing so will keep you from an awkward position so you can make a straight shot. 

In Kelly Pool

Kelly Pool is another game that may have given rise to the term behind the eight ball. In Kelly Pool, players are secretly assigned a target ball. To win, the player must pocket his numbered ball in the pool after first pocketing the lower-numbered balls.

Players who have drawn balls with a higher number than eight, or the balls behind the eight ball, tend to be in a losing position in the game of Kelly pool.

Behind the Eight Ball Synonym

  • Poor
  • Necessitous
  • Unlucky
  • In hot water
  • On-the-spot
  • Out on a limb
  • Up the creek

Spiritual Meaning of 8 Ball

The 8 ball represents the idea of chance because it can refer to both good and bad luck. It’s also associated with having a sense of balance. Like the yin and yang, the 8 ball reminds people to take the good with the bad.

The 8 ball is also a fortune-telling device that became popular in the 1940s. After a decade, the Mattel toy company developed the tool into a toy. This item can answer yes-no questions with “my source says no,” “it is decidedly so,” and more. 

How Do You Use ‘Behind the Eight Ball’ in a Sentence?

Behind the Eight Ball – Meaning and Origin 1

The Razorbacks are already behind the eight ball with a loss to Texas A&M, but a home upset of the Tide vaults them right back in the SEC West picture. (USA Today)

“I don’t want to get into the old days and then realize we’re behind the eight ball and we have to redesign all this stuff,” Boesch said. (The Naples Daily News)

“He was behind the eight ball, and on the bank shot, he missed, Tommy sinking the five (The Daily News)”

  • Finalize your research topic now, or you’ll be behind the eight ball in a few months. 
  • Her family is still behind the eight ball after what happened to her father. 
  • Companies that struggled to make an online presence during the pandemic are still behind the eight ball.

Don’t Get Behind the Eight Ball!

You’ll never be behind the eight ball if you study your idioms well! The phrase behind the eight ball derives from the game of pool where you’re not supposed to hit the eight ball into a pocket.

If one is behind the eight ball, they are in a tough or losing situation. Which idiomatic expression do you want to learn next? Take a look at our breakdown of the idiom ‘a cat may look at a king.’

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