Out of pocket

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The phrase out of pocket has at least three definitions:

  1. It’s a phrasal adjective or adverbial phrase meaning paid in cash or paid without expectation of reimbursement.
  2. It means out of reach, especially while shirking one’s official duties.
  3. It means out of or deprived of money. This sense is primarily British.

The origin of the first sense (and the closely related third sense) is obvious. Cash is usually kept in the pocket, so to pay out of pocket is to pay in cash. The second sense is more mysterious. The OED lists it as a U.S. phrase and includes one example from over a century ago (and we can find no examples from earlier, but there may be a few buried among the many instances of out of pocket in its other senses). Other sources call it an American Southernism, and it seems to appear especially often in American politics. In any case, its origin has not been definitively established. The commenters on this Language Log post offer many interesting possibilities.

A slight variation, out of the pocket, is used in American football. When a quarterback leaves the safe zone behind his offensive line, we say he is out of the pocket.

In its main senses, out of pocket is usually a phrasal adjective, so it is conventionally hyphenated when preceding what it modifies (e.g., our out-of-pocket expenses) and unhyphenated when it follows what it modifies (e.g., our expenses were out of pocket).


Definition 1

Nearly half of low- and moderate-income households carry debt from out-of-pocket medical expenses on their credit cards, the survey found. [New York Times]

In the individual market, insurers must also cap annual out-of-pocket expenses at $6,050 for individuals and $12,100 for families. [Washington Post]

Definition 2

“If you’ve been out of pocket for two years, going back to school sounds nice, but it doesn’t make or break the situation.” [quoted in New York Times]

When Drooz repeatedly tried contacting Condit directly, Condit’s daughter Cadee informed her the former congressman was “out of pocket.” [McClatchy]

Definition 3

The bosses of Farepak, the Christmas hamper business that went bust leaving 116,400 people out of pocket, were accused on Thursday of being unfit to run a company. [Guardian]

From Monday, new rules will partially close loopholes that have left passengers out of pocket when travel firms collapse. [Telegraph]

2 thoughts on “Out of pocket”

  1. I asked someone years ago about the origin of meaning #2, being unavailable, and was told that it comes from phrase used by police with respect to a suspect, as in “The suspect is out of pocket. We’ve looked everywhere and can’t find him.”

  2. Interestingly, the way I have seen this used with my colleagues, at least as far as I can interpret it, is to mean they are working “out of their pocket”, meaning they are somewhat available via cell phone (calls/email), but not fully available for work (no access to computer, delayed responses, etc.).


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