Call the Shots (or Calling the Shots) – Idiom & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idiomatic phrases are a group of words with a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from their literal meaning. They are an excellent way to add clarity to speech and writing if your audience understands their use.

However, idioms can be confusing to English language learners since they are not used in a literal sense. And it truly is a mark of English mastery to be able to use them properly and understand them when heard.

To call the shots is a good example of this. This figurative phrase is fairly new to English and has only been used for around 100 years. It means to be in control but does stem from more literal usage. Let’s take a closer look at what it means and how it can be used in speech and writing.

What Is the Meaning of Calling the Shots?

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To call the shots means to be the person in charge and to have control over the progress of a situation or a course of action.

Related terms are calls the shots, called the shots, and calling the shots.

For example:

  • Whatever your views are concerning the community meeting, it is evident that the people feel it is high time they called the shots.
  • She calls the shots in her household, and those boys toe the line because of it.
  • The coach is calling the shots concerning the new training program, and we like the results so far.
  • After nobody stepped forward, she decided to call the shots and scheduled the entirety of the field trip so the students had the learning experience they deserved.

Origin of Call the Shots

Call The Shots Ngram
Call in the shots usage trend.

The term call the shots as an idiom, meaning to be in control of a situation, was first used in print in the 1960s.

But, the phrase was used in its literal sense in an everyday speech prior to this time, especially in shooting and billiards. Its literal meaning is very descriptive of its figurative use and draws an analogy between the action it describes and its meaning to take control.

The term was used as early as the 1500s during curling plays in Scotland when the “Skip” calls the shots. It later was used in military parlance to note where shots fired were hitting their targets. At this time, it was common when performing gun exhibitionists to call where the shot was going to be fired and then perform a marksman trick.

Calling your shot during billiards also became popular, meaning to call which pocket will be used to sink a ball before hitting the cue ball.

Let’s Review

The idiomatic phrase call the shots is very descriptive of its literal use. It means to take control or be in control over the course of action, much like you might call the results of a firearm or a game of billiards.

It has a long literal history and, when used figuratively, offers an analogy to an audience to provide clarity in speech and writing.