'Out of Pocket' Produces Loose Change

Rob Kyff on

For most of us, "out of pocket" has always referred to incidental expenditures paid directly from someone's pocket. (Remember that boss who never reimbursed you for your tolls on the sales trip to Elmira?)

About 10 years ago, however, trendy business execs started using "out of pocket" to mean "out of contact, unavailable," e.g., "I'm sorry, but Mr. Blunderby is in Elmira and will be out of pocket for the next three weeks."

And now a recent radio conversation among three teenagers on the NPR program "Here and Now" suggests that the phrase has developed yet another meaning.

As the teens discussed how to avoid political arguments with family members during holiday dinners, Charlie Stuip said that his relatives "can say some definitely out-of-pocket stuff." Malia Disney added, "When I have a family member say something really out-of-pocket, I typically don't respond."

In fact, this use of "out of pocket" to mean "inappropriate" has been around since at least the 1970s, and there's strong evidence that it arose in African-American slang.

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, for instance, includes this citation from the 1972 book "Black Players" by Christina and Richard Milner, which billed itself as "a thorough examination of the urban pimp culture." The book quotes one hustler explaining how strict his parents were: "If you get caught smoking pot, you're totally out of pocket."

In 2003, African-American sisters Tina and Erica Campbell used the same term in their memoir "Transparent" to describe their own parents' views: "If we were doing something completely out of pocket, they might say a little something just to make us think about what we were doing."

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More recently, a November, 2017, post on the Fox Sports website also used this same meaning. Suggesting that rookie L.A. Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball was straying beyond his proper role in crashing the boards, Sharon Murrell Robinson wrote, "He's really out of pocket with the rebounds. He will get hurt inside there with the big boys."

Sure enough, the Online Slang Dictionary, which swoops down like a hawk when a word's street meaning strays out of pocket, lists several synonyms that reflect this new definition: "inappropriate, out-of-line, crazy, random."

So "out of pocket" has expanded its meaning from "self-paid expenses," to "inaccessibility," to "divergence from the norm."

Now THAT's what I call "pocket" change!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2018 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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