Out of pocket

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The governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, has been missing since Thursday ("SC governor's whereabouts unknown, even to wife", Associated Press, 6/22/2008).   The linguistic hook here is the way that his spokesman, Joel Sawyer, described his status ("Have you see [sic] this man? SC GOV, MIA", MSNC, 6/22/2009):

The governor put in a lot of time during this last legislative session, and after the session winds down it's not uncommon for him to go out of pocket for a few days at a time to clear his head. Obviously, that's going to be somewhat out of the question this time given the attention this particular absence has gotten. [emphasis added]

I'm used to seeing "out of pocket" used to mean something like "expenses incurred without reimbursement", but not what what Mr. Sawyer clearly meant in this case, namely "out of reach, absent, unavailable". The same phrase was also used by another local political figure, quoted in the NY Daily News ("AWOL South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has entire state in a tizzy",  6/22/2009):

"The governor needs to be available to the people. He doesn't have to give the world his mobile number, but he's got to be where he can be contacted," said state Sen. Jake Knotts.

"Nobody knows where he is. He's out of pocket. They've been looking for him since Thursday." [emphasis added]

But this is not, as I first thought, a malapropistic cliché, or perhaps a development from the idea of a football quarterback scrambling "out of the pocket" —  the OED gives the gloss "out of reach, absent, unavailable", with citations going back a century:

1908 ‘O. HENRY’ Buried Treasure in Ainslee's July 69/2 Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.
1974 Anderson (S. Carolina) Independent 20 Apr. 1A/1 If you..have ever been sick and the only doctor is out of pocket for the weekend, then you know we need more doctors.
2002 A. PHILLIPS Prague III. viii. 229 Five-day weekend for me, Charlie, starting in eighteen minutes. I'll be out of pocket until Tuesday.

O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) was born and raised in Greensboro NC, but Arthur Phillips is from Minnesota. Anyhow, whatever the geographical origins, I kind of like the idea of being "out of pocket", and perhaps I should try it myself.

[Update 6/23/2009 — now that the his spokeperson's Nth story is that Gov. Sanford has been spending the past few days out hiking on the Appalachian trail, there's a good chance that a new idiom has been born. ]

[6/24/2009: The (N+1)th story is that he went for a drive in Argentina. ]

[And the (N+2)th story is that he spent a week in Buenos Aires breaking up with his Argentine girlfriend. ]


  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

    "Out of pocket" in the sense it's being used here is slightly marked for me, but I definitely think I've heard it used that way before. (I grew up in Atlanta, GA.)

  2. Brett said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    I initially thought it meant that, having wandered away from his official duties in Columbia, Sanford was not utilizing his expense account. It would certainly be in character for him—unless he never uses his expense account at all, which might be even more in character. (As a congressman, he returned his living allowance and slept in his office.)

  3. Wilson said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

    I learned the expression from a friend who comes from (mostly) Ohio. I think I use it a lot now.

  4. JimG said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    It's intriguing that the "absent and out of contact" usage is as old as it is. When I learned the "having unreimbursed expenses" meaning many years ago, I got the distinct impression that IT was somewhat antiquated.

  5. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    I noticed this usage when I arrived in Texas in the 90s. I thought it was just a misinterpretation of a phrase whose semantics was not completely mastered by the users (one of whom was an old-timey columnist for the local paper). With this misinterpretation (a reanalysis) the 'out of' part would then be semantically motivated by analogy with expressions like 'out of reach'. How interesting to find out that this is actually a survival of an older usage rather than a recent innovation. That might explain why I only noticed it used by older speakers.

  6. Laura said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

    For what it's worth, a friend of mine from Minnesota uses this phrase but I have not heard it from others.

  7. Colbeagle said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    "Out of pocket" meaning absent or unavailable is common usage in Chicago, at least in the legal world. People routinely go out of pocket for a weekend or longer. It usually implies that someone will not only be out of the office, but also that they won't be checking their blackberry very often.

  8. Eyebrows McGee said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    I have a Texan friend who uses the phrase a lot, particularly with reference to being away from one's technology and therefore out of contact.

    I immediately knew what it meant, though on reflection I found it a slightly odd phrase.

  9. William Clifford said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    I first heard this usage in _The Wire_, maybe the last episode of season 2. They lose the trail of some guy they've been following and explain to their bosses "He's out-of-pocket for the moment…"

  10. Karen said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    I only found it odd applied to a missing governor. Usually it's (in my experience) applied to people who you figure are around, just not in the office – where you can put a hand on them, I suppose. For things, it's (again, in my experience) for something that either you can't find, or you have found not where it's meant to be.

  11. Nancy Kreml said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    I've heard it used that way. But pocket is not all that my governor is out of.

  12. Caroline B said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

    This is a very common expression where I'm from (Nashville, TN). It seems to me to have acquired a tinge of professional-ese in recent years; ie, it's something a businessperson says when they're going to be away from their phone/computer for a while.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

    Only became aware of phrase when I entered the law-firm world in NYC (starting '93) and it rapidly seemed ubiquitous. Felt jargony to me initially but I obviously hadn't been reviewing my O Henry or South Carolina newspapers.

  14. Jan Freeman said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

    Here's a little squib I wrote about "out of pocket" in August 1997, when my Boston Globe column was new:

    It came from out of pocket

    The minority meaning of "out of pocket" — unavailable, unreachable — continues to gain ground, if only gradually, in the Northeast territory.

    The older out of pocket refers to money: You have out-of-pocket expenses on the road, and if they aren't reimbursed — or if you lose money in another venture — you are out of pocket by that amount. You're also out of pocket if you're short on funds. But sometime in this century, a fair number of people, especially Southerners, began to say, "I'll be out of pocket till Thursday, but call me after that."

    The phrase was already lurking around back in 1980, when William Safire addressed a query on "out of pocket" in his New York Times language column. At the time, he reported, it wasn't yet in any dictionaries, but one informant had picked it up at UPI in the '50s, and several thought it was journalism slang.

    Another line of inquiry leads to the South. Joan Hall, associate editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, says the expression is predominantly southern, with DARE's first citation dated 1967. Several of the early examples, she says, applied out of pocket to inanimate objects — a lost or misplaced book, say, was out of pocket.

    One Globe colleague, a native speaker of Texan, suggests a football origin for out of pocket: Texas fans "suffered universal trauma back in the 1960s when Don Meredith would wander out of the pocket against the LA Rams," he recalls. But a sports editor objects: A quarterback is out of "the" pocket, he says — there's always a "the" there.

    Nonjournalists and non-Southerners, is out of pocket on the loose in your neighborhood? Let us know what you think of it. And whose pocket is it, anyway?

  15. JakeT said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 2:35 am

    I'm familiar with this usage, too. Interesting that it's primarily Southern. I've always felt like it ought to be used only by the same people who talk about maximizing their synergies and leveraging guerrilla marketing techniques through social media.

  16. Rob said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 3:19 am

    I had always associated "out of pocket" with the longer phrase "out of pocket expenses." But just 3 weeks ago I heard this other usage for the first time, and was confused by it. Then I heard it again from a different person about a week later. Now I see this again in print. It seems strange to me that I have never heard this phrase used this way before, and within the space of a month heard it three times. (I'm in Los Angeles, btw.)

  17. Nicholas Waller said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 5:46 am

    I notice all the OED cites quoted are American; I'm British and have never heard the AWOL/away from the desk/uncontactable usage before, only financial uses.

  18. nbm said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 7:12 am

    Just want to chime in to support the NYC-legal-world usage dating back into the late 80s. My boss, an older partner, used it all the time and it rang clumsy and pretentious to my ear, so I remember it well. I never hear it in my current work world (arts non-profit). I wonder if they use it in the quasi-corporate administration or finance departments?

  19. Roadrunner said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 7:15 am

    This is extremely common in the political world in DC, and has no regional markings here. It means generally "unable to be contacted" but more specifically "won't be checking my blackberry or cell phone." Like others above, I suspect the frequent use by professionals is due to the fact that people *always* assume we're checking our blackberries, so it's important to note when that won't be the case.

    I'm not a fan of the phrase, but can't quite say why–perhaps its utter lack of literal meaning grates on me. What exactly do pockets have to do with being in communication with someone?

  20. Karen said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    This is totally my own belief, but I've always felt that "out of pocket" in the "not where it's supposed to be" sense – which predates the "not [going to be] in contact" sense, I think – is that hands go in pockets and something not in pocket is not where you can put your hand on it. But I repeat, that was just my attempt, as a child some 45 years ago, to understand the figure of speech. (I'm from Tennessee, by the way.)

  21. Brian D said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    I just wanted to underscore the point several others have made above that this usage is fairly common in the legal (and I imagine by extension political) workplace. I first heard it when working in a Philadelphia law firm.

  22. L.N. Hammer said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    I've been hearing "out of pocket" meaning out of contact for about two years now, here in Arizona. When I first heard it, I asked around and about half the people I asked were familiar with it. I assumed it was simply a new round of corporate slang.

  23. Bloix said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    Like several others, I've only heard it from lawyers and business people to mean unavailable. I've never heard it in casual conversation. I don't think anyone says to his wife that he's going to be "out of pocket" for the afternoon.

  24. Asher said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    Wow. I'm a New Zealander and I've only seen (or, at least, interpreted) "out of pocket" to mean "temporarily poor", e.g. "I only got paid on Tuesday and already I'm out of pocket. Shouldn't've gone out for dinner last night."

    I use the expression as such fairly often – it's entirely possible of course that those around me who use the expression use it to mean one of the meanings already mentioned in this post and the ensuing comments.

    I rather delight in the idea of someone being "out of pocket" because you can't get hold of them … maybe I'll try and introduce that here in Wellington.

  25. carla said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    I agree with the general consensus – I always associated "out of pocket" with expenses, i.e., expenses you pay yourself perhaps for later reimbursement.

    I started hearing this other sense of the phrase meaning "busy, unavailable, incommunicado" when I was a practicing attorney.

    It's a very common usage among attorneys – "I'm traveling to California for a deposition tonight and will be completely out of pocket until Thursday, so if you want me to review that letter you better get it to me by lunchtime."

    I found it very jarring, and never adopted the usage myself in my six years of private practice.

  26. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    One more data point: I grew up in Western Canada, with one parent from there and one parent from Sheffield UK, and now live in Toronto. I'm pretty sure I've never heard "out of pocket" as used here, and to me the expression has only the single meaning of paying for something (e.g. on a business trip) using your own personal funds as opposed to an expense account.

  27. Clarissa said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    I lived in the southern US for much of my life, but only as a kid, so I guess it's not surprising that this usage is totally new to me if it's more popular in legal and business circles. (The NZ "broke" meaning is new to me too.)

    On the other hand, I *am* familiar with the phrase "living in each other's pocket(s)" to describe living too closely together or being too familiar with with each other's comings and goings, which seems to be a related formation.

  28. Bloix said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    carla – I don't use it either, because I don't understand it. When am I ever "in pocket"? I don't like to use cliches when I don't know what the literal meaning is.

  29. Michael Warhol said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    The phrase "out of pocket" used to mean that a person is absent
    and unavailable is one among several (to me) odd uses of English
    that I've been exposed to in business meetings. Another is the
    phrase "on yesterday/today/tomorrow," modelled (I suppose) on
    "on Tuesday." That one really grates, but it's nothing compared
    to "transiss," meaning "to make a transition."

    I'm not complaining, though; such meetings are the closest this
    dabbling non-linguist comes to fieldwork.

  30. MichaelTr said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    I can confirm it's not unusual to hear in Minnesota, at least in the legal or business worlds. It is usually connected more with the meaning of "incommunicado," in my experience — not reachable, not with access to electronic communications — rather than just generally "out of the office." But that may not always be true.

  31. jackofhearts29 said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    As an Atlantan (native, 39, male), I heard it in this sense very seldom… until the mid 90s, when I met a friend (from New York state, via California) who uses it all the time. Now it is more familiar to me but I rarely use it outside of conversations with him. Oh, and he is a salesman-type, so I figure he picked it up from the suit-talk world (he uses a lot of other slangy business buzzwords and such)

  32. nascardaughter said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Here in the Bay Area, "out of pocket" can refer to behavior considered unconventional, inappropriate, or just plain wrong. You might say that someone who gets really drunk at a party and starts flirting with your significant other is acting out of pocket, for example.

  33. Englishprof said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

    I've only heard it use this way recently but I don't like it. It doesn't really make sense, but I suppose it's becoming part of the vernacular now.

  34. Eyebrows McGee said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    to those who don't like it — I think it annoys me because you can just as easily say "out of contact" if you're going Blackberry-free. Maybe we should force the neologism "aff-kee" to catch on (word-ing "AFK" to suggest one will be away from ALL keyboards ….)

  35. Nee in Germany said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    I grew up in West Texas, and all my family says it, but only "to be out of pocket." I had never heard "to go out of pocket" before the quote from the AWOL governor.

  36. PGW said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    "Out of pocket" has been used for many years in the business world….simply means unreachable. I was hoping to find out how it came about…. kind of like how the word "couch" … as in "let's couch the discussion in a way to show the participants…"

    Business jargon..what a joke.

    [(myl) The use of couch as a verb to mean "To put together, frame, shape, arrange (words, a sentence, etc.); to express in language, put into words; to set down in writing" is hardly business jargon. The OED's citations start with these:

    1529 MORE Supplic. Soulys Wks. 290/1 It is so contriued, & the wordes so cowched, that..a simple reader might..in the reding be deadly corrupted.
    1586 W. WEBBE Eng. Poetrie (Arb.) 63 In chouching the whole sentence, the like regarde is to be had.
    1651 HOBBES Leviath. III. xxxiii. 205 The words wherein the question..is couched.
    1702 Eng. Theophrast. 282 Flattery well couch'd.
    1746 WESLEY Princ. Methodist 5 The Argument..is best understood when couched in few words.


  37. Brett said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

    I heard on the radio this afternoon that, in this case at least, "out of pocket" apparently meant "visiting his mistress in Argentina."

    Hearing the actual explanation of where Sanford had been was one of those "stanger than fiction" moments. The whole story had been rather surreal, with Sanford supposedly disappearing before Father's Day without letting his family know where he was headed, then his staff claiming he was on the Appalachian Trail, where he was out of touch—yet had decided that he ought to come home after hearing about the uproar.

  38. Saunders said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    I just exchanged an email today with one of my authors, asking him to let me know if he was going to be on vacation or "out of pocket" so that we plan around him. He had no idea what I meant by it and none of my colleagues did either. To your point about the regional usage of the phrase, I am originally from Memphis but work with all Northern authors. I grew up hearing the phrase used to mean "out of communication range" or "unavailable" and was shocked that no one knew what I was talking about.

  39. Altissima said,

    July 5, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

    Since reading this entry, I have noticed similar usagse of "out of pocket" in the HBO series "the Wire". In the last and second last episodes of Series 2, the usage is as described by previous commenter William Clifford to describe someone out of reach.
    In series 3 (sorry can't remember which episode), there is a slightly different usage – a "soldier" in the drug operation is described by his colleagues as "out of pocket", but the meaning is clearly that his behavior is out of control and unacceptable, comparable to "a loose canon". It's easy to see how this usage has been extrapolated from the sense of being out of reach (cf "AWOL" ).
    Until reading this blog entry , and then noticing the usage on The Wire, I had only been familiar with the sense of paying for something using personal funds as opposed to an expense account.
    -Melbourne, Australia

  40. John Newton said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    I moved to Minnesota five years ago, but just heard this expression (used in the sense of "absent") for the first time today–and twice, no less, in two separate and unrelated emails. At first I also thought it was a typo, but the second email made me think again and (what else?) consult Google, which led me here.

  41. Bruce W. Franz said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    I'm familiar with both usages. "You'll have to pay for it out of pocket." I also use, "I'll be out of pocket next week." I grew up in Ohio, but my mother from Kentucky also used both expressions. My wife and children claim they didn't know the latter usage and accused me of making up new language! Fascinating!

  42. Snowgoose said,

    April 23, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    In Ireland, "out of pocket" refers solely to expenses and is in widespread usage. An American colleague just used it in reference to being out of contact for the next few days in an email. I was intrigued enough to google its meaning. I think it's a fantastic idiom for modern times given our reliance on the technology in our pockets and the real need to regularly get "out of pocket" and away from the iPhone. I intend to slip it into a few conversations here in Ireland and see if it is absorbed into the vernacular.

  43. rshs said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    This phrase comes from journalism. In the fast-waning newspaper office, the copy chief sits in the crook of a horseshoe-shaped desk, surrounded by his copy editors. This is the "pocket." To keep the flow of proofread copy going, the chief must be "in pocket." If he goes away for any length of time, he's "out of the pocket," unavailable, and things grind to a halt. This became shortened to "out of pocket" on Telexes and faxes.

  44. richard said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    In the intercity "Out of Pocket" means extremely disrespectful and rude, to the point of deserving a serious beating.

  45. BillyO said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    I would add my two cents that I have heard it almost exclusively used by lawyers (Philadelphia and Northeast). It has always sounded out of place and a bit pretentious. I have not adopted it for my own usage, particularly for that reason and since it doesn't really make sense.

  46. Chris said,

    January 6, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    Since the blogger raised the subject in relation to Gov. Sanford, perhaps we should consider the possibility that "out of pocket" refers to a penis that has strayed from its proper home inside the pants, and has escaped through the pocket of those pants.

  47. Planetarily Correct said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    The earliest OED reference provided seems to suggest a loss of control over the women who is out of pocket versus the women making herself unavailable. The consensus on the current usage appears to relate strongly to electronic means of communication though not limited to this. In any case I also disliked the modern usage until reading this thread. My feeling is that users of this expression are essential saying, "I know the expectation is that I should be reachable even during this period in which I am normally away from you (my coworkers) but I will not be making any attempt to stay in touch and expect that you will not try to reach me."

    In short, "I am going to be out of your pocket (influence) for a while."

  48. What does it mean to "be out of pocket"? - Quora said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

    […] […]

  49. What does it mean to "be out of pocket"? - Quora said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

    […] they would say, "I'm out of pocket all of next week."Link for additional details: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu…, Thanks Jason CrawfordThis answer .Please specify the necessary improvements. Edit Link Text […]

  50. Lawrence said,

    March 20, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    I grew up in Florida (the "South" part of Florida) and I've always known "out of pocket" to mean out of reach for communication purposes. It can also refer to out-of-pocket expenses in a different context; there's never been any confusion on that point. While my father is a lawyer (as am I), I never associated the phrase with the legal profession.

  51. Terri Coleman said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

    I am 70 years old, my Oklahoma raised Grandmother would use the expression when someone could not be seen or heard of for a short period of time. For example, "Where are the children? " " I don't know, they have been out of pocket for over an hour." Meaning, they are not lost, just out somewhere that she is not sure of their exact location.
    She would say this of my Grandfather on a weekend when he would take off doing whatever, he was out of pocket.. Until he came home.. And believe me, this was long before cell phones and Blackberrys, even telephones for that matter in the 40's. I think of it as Southern, but many Southern expression have origins of England, Ireland. Another is saying to your children when they go off the a party, "mind your P's and Q's". This came from Europe , meaning- mind you pints and quarts.. Beer!

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