Having a Field Day – Idiom, Origin & 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 terms that have a meaning different from their literal definition. They are used to create figurative connections and often add detail and clarity to speech and writing when the audience is aware of the analogy being made.

When someone is having a field day, it doesn’t mean they are out playing in a field. It means they are taking advantage of something and having a great time in the process.

Let’s take a closer look at the origins of this phrase and what it actually means so you can use it in your own speech and writing.

What Does It Mean to Have a Field Day?

Having a Field Day Idiom Origin Meaning

To have a field day means to extract excitement or gain an advantage from a situation, particularly a situation that is detrimental to someone else. The phrase is often used as a warning to highlight that negative results may occur due to another’s actions in relation to a specific event.

For example:

  • If the measure doesn’t pass, I’m afraid the media will have a field day with the promises that were made and not kept – calling into question the sincerity of the message, to begin with.
  • I’m sure the parents will have a field day with the announcement that was made concerning failing seniors; expect to see the phone lines flooded, complaining about the complete lack of direct communication.
  • Social media users are having a field day with the photo that was released of the actor caught in a compromising position.

Originally, field day was a military term that referred to a day dedicated to military maneuvers, as these military maneuvers occurred in actual fields. The term is still used literally, often in school, to highlight a series of friendly, end-of-the-year competitive events that pit classes against one another.

For example:

  • The 5th-grade class will hold their annual field day competition in May.
  • In high school, we used to have a field day every spring that pit freshmen against sophomores and juniors against seniors.

Having a Field Day Origin

Having a Field Day Ngram
Having a Field Day Usage Trend.

The idea behind a field day is rooted in mid-18th-century military exercises in which various techniques and marching in formation displays were practiced or shown off to visiting audiences. By 1827, to have a field day had also taken on a figurative use to mean any day [and in any environment] that contained “unusual bustle, exertion, or display.”

Today, the term is active in both a literal sense, as well as a figurative sense and is generally used in a sarcastic way or with a warning tone of voice to highlight that a situation may be taken advantage of.

Let’s Review

The term field day is from 18th-century military maneuvers but had taken on figurative uses by the early 19th century. Today, the term is used figuratively to explain that an advantage is likely to be gained through the detriment (or embarrassment) of someone or something else.