Lucking out

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In Lee Child's recent novel The Affair, Jack Reacher visits the home of Shawna Lindsey, one of three beautiful young women who have been brutally murdered, and meets the victim's younger brother. Reacher's interior monologue goes like this:

Lee Child is British, but in my experience of his novels, he seems to have a good command of American idioms. This time, though, I think that he's gotten one backwards. The OED identifies luck out as a U.S. expression, a judgment that is supported by the fact that it doesn't occur at all in the British National Corpus, but occurs 32 times in COCA. And the OED gives it the gloss "to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation", which seems about right (though maybe this emphasizes the difficulty and danger too much).

But Child seems to have Reacher using luck out by analogy to baseball terms like "strike out", "fly out", "ground out", where the out part means that your outcome in the current trial is complete failure. On that analogy, luck out could mean "fail completely due to (bad) luck". And in some parallel universe, it might — but here and now, in the U. S. of A.,  it doesn't.

I guess it's possible that some errant typing, editing, or typesetting omitted a "not"; but that seems less likely to me than an uncharacteristic misunderstanding on the part of Child and his editor(s).

Update — Lauren at Superlinguo (from Australia) has a nice investigation of regional differences in the interpretation of luck out: "Lucking out", 9/26/2011:

Over lunch with a few friend the other day it transpired there were two very different opinions about the meaning of the term ‘lucked out’ that divided the group. Half of us firmly believe that it is a good thing to luck out, while the other half thought that it was a very bad thing to luck out.

She adds some corpus searching:

The New York Times up to 2007 had 326 references for ‘lucked out’, The Independent (UK) had 19 references since 1994 and for an Australian angle The Age had 44 search items with ‘lucked out’ since 1995. I’d love to spend all day going through the clippings, and tallying which sense is used where, and the oldest reported uses etc, but work calls . With only a quick flick it looks like the NYT references are all using the positive sense. the Independent also mostly uses the positive sence but the term mostly crops up in American references and quotes […]

In The Age there are a mixture of usages, much like our small Australian contingent at the lunch table showed mixed attitudes to the meaning of ‘luck out.’ […]

In the interest of full disclosure, I only ever use ‘luck out’ as a negative thing. If you lucked out things certainly didn’t go your way.

So it looks like this is not an individual thing with Lee Child, as I mistakenly thought. Rather, luck out has come to be used outside the U.S. as well, but somewhat less often, and with mixed polarity.

But the negative-outcome version must be quite rare in the U.S., if it occurs at all — I've never heard or read it before, and none of the 32 relevant hits in COCA are of that type.

Update #2 — There's an instructive entry in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which I should have checked earlier:

According to Harper 1985, luck out was commonly used during World War Ii in some such sense as "to meet with bad luck; run out of luck," as in describing a soldier who was a casualty of battle ("He lucked out") or a poker player who lost hist chips. The Harper panelists are asked if they think that the newer sense of luck out, "to succeed because of good luck," has now superseded the older sense. Most of them vote yes, but 26 percent vote no.

We find those "no" votes a bit peculiar, because have collected almost no evidence of the older sense cited by Harper. An entry for it can be found in Wentworth & Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang (1960), indicating that it had "some W.W. II use; some general use;" but have to wonder how common its use ever became. Several World War II veterans on the Harper panel have never heard of it, and our files include only a single citation:

Elementary school children get a day off Feb. 17. . . . Junior and Senior High Schools are lucked out. . . . Both will be in session. — Springfield (Mass.) Union, 31 Jan. 1958

The little evidence we have showing luck used as a verb during World War II is suggestive of good luck, not bad […]

Having participated in similar panel votes, my own guess would be that those 26 votes for the idea that the putative older meaning was still extant in 1985 were probably votes for a general laissez-faire policy: "Sure, if some veterans want to use the phrase in that quaint and peculiar way, why not let them?"

The MWDEU entry continues:

We first recorded this [positive] luck out in 1951:

, , , had been arrested by a plainclothesman, who, as they say in Harlem, had lucked out on him; that is, the officer had picked him up merely on suspicion, searched him in a hallway, and found his dope outfit. — Eugene Kinkead, New Yorker, 10 Nov. 1951

A brief article by James E. Miller, Jr. in the devember, 1954 issue of American Speech testified to the common use of luck out in this sense by college freshmen. By the 1960s it had because established in more general use. It now occurs commonly in both speech and general writing […]

Since Jack Reacher was fictionally 38 years old in the 1997 of The Affair, and thus born around 1959, he would have grown up with the positive version.

But I should not that this item is rare enough (about 1 per 10 million words in COCA) that a few Americans might learn it backwards, and go a long time without encountering clear evidence of their mistake. And if it's entered Australia (and England?) in a mixed form — or been independently coined there with mixed valence — then the resulting confusion could last a long time without being sorted out.


  1. MattF said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

    Urban Dictionary claims that 'lucked out' means 'out of luck' in the UK: OUT

  2. keri said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    Huh. I actually read the "he had lucked out with the genetic lottery" as sarcastic/bad luck, once I continued to the following sentences. The tone of the context ("head like a bowling ball" "fell out of the ugly tree…") makes it very easy for me to hear the phrase in my head with a sarcastic or otherwise negative sound.

  3. Chris said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

    A lot of my teacher friends [Brits] are also surfers, and I'd heard from them that 'lucked out' is often used in Australia to mean that you've been unlucky, or some misfortune has befallen you. An Aussie guy I know confirms this, as he remembers being baffled hearing it used in a positive manner in the UK.

    As an aside, I've recently heard lots of people mention the Reacher books – are they any good?

  4. Tara said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

    Yep, I've always used 'lucked out' to mean bad luck as an Australian – I was a bit worried reading this post that I'd fundamentally misunderstood something and not been saying what I thought I was saying for a long time.

  5. Adrian Morgan said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    Another Australian … but I don't recall ever encountering "lucked out" except on the Internet and maybe television, so I can't add a datapoint about local usage.

    I did once read an online discussion in which people of various nationalities explained what they meant by "lucked out". The American representative explained the American idiom (just as "walked out" means you escaped the situation by walking, so "lucked out" means you escaped the situation by being lucky), whereupon I think everyone else felt a moment of enlightenment.

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

    @ Chris — Can't say whether the Reacher books are any good or not, but I like them. Child puts a lot of emphasis on the details of controlled violence and includes full anatomical analyses of Reacher's various methods of breaking an opponent's neck. If you can suspend disbelief willingly, Child is your man, so to speak.

    BTW — The Cambridge International Dictionary says: Luck out Am infml * The Giants really lucked out (= something good happened) in last night's game.

  7. Andrea said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    Is it possible that the author was trying to say that the man was lucky to be ugly, because the people who were murdered were beautiful? (Implying that beautiful people are targeted for murder, at least wherever this book takes place.)

  8. Evan said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

    the 'oil painting' part is a little confusing as well, from context I guess it's supposed to mean 'beautiful thing' but the closest slang term I've actually heard before is a 'monet', meaning one who is attractive from afar but not up close.

  9. David Y said,

    October 8, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

    I read the passage before the post title or introduction, so wasn't primed to pay special attention to the use of "lucked out." As an American who's lived in the Midwest and California, it definitely didn't work for me. I found myself think I must have misunderstood the first sentence, that the protagonist must not be a fan of oil paintings or something.

  10. Lauren said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 12:32 am

    The difference is, broadly speaking, that in UK English it means to lose out while in US English it is a good thing. Us Australians tend to be split on this issue. I have a few examples of each usage:

    Interestingly, it was only when I wrote that post that I discovered most of my friends and colleague were rather divided on the meaning of 'luck out'!

  11. UK Lawyer said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 1:11 am

    This blog is always an education. I would have read lucked out as meaning out of luck. But I would have assumed it was an American expression. It sounds like Lee Child made a mistake – he won't like that.

    He's/You're no oil painting is a fairly common expression in the UK, so I was surprised by Evan's comment, as I am by many of the comments on this blog – the diversity of commenters' language experiences is a further good reason for reading it.

    I have read a couple of Reacher novels, and I think they are well-written stories about a hero beating the bad guys and saving the community. They keep the reader's attention. Much better written than, say, Grisham or Val McDermid. From what I have read about Lee Child, he set out to write best-sellers, and he has planned and executed the task well. A* from me.

  12. Michael said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 5:23 am

    Othello, 5:2, line 357 (GRATIANO )

    [(myl) Is this a new form of comment spam?

    [352]  Poore Desdemona , I am glad thy father's dead,
    [353]  Thy match was mortall to him, and pure griefe,
    [354]  Shore his old thread atwane: did he liue now,
    [355]  This sight would make him doe a desperate turne,
    [356]  Yea curse his better Angell from his side,
    [357]  And fall to reprobation.

    Random Shakespeare citations? A clever idea. Or at least, a step up from "This post is absolutely producing sense, although I also have some situation about it." ]

  13. Faldone said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 6:43 am

    I'm from Chicago originally and had my first exposure to many people from other parts of the country when I was in the Navy. I vaguely remember at that time being exposed to some group of Southerners who used "luck out" in the negative sense. New Orleans is somehow connected to this memory but that may just be some random slip of paper in my Junk Drawer Memory® next to the one with the almost illegible one that has the negative "luck out" scribble on it.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    I (AmE, born mid-last century) was not aware of a negative meaning of this expression. Does 'lucky' have a negative meaning for anyone?

  15. Rachael said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 7:37 am

    I'm British and have only ever understood the expression positively.

    Does it have negative polarity for older British speakers, but those of us who are younger (I'm 29) have picked up the positive meaning from Americans and/or the Internet? Just a guess.

  16. Paul Clarke said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 8:48 am

    I'm British and a couple of decades older than Rachael, and I also have only the positive interpretation of "lucked out".

  17. Mary Bull said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 8:48 am

    Texas native, Tennessee resident, teenager in the WWII years: have only heard "lucked out" to mean escaped out of a bad situation by good luck.

  18. jf said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    I always thought of it as deriving from poker. An "out" in poker is a card that will change your hand from a losing hand to a winning hand, by analogy to a way *out* of a trap. If you have many outs, it's not surprising that you get one of them, but if you have few outs, and get one, you have "lucked out."

    I have no research for this or even anything other than introspection.

  19. Jamie said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    I (native British English speaker) have always assumed "luck out" is negative with connotations of "out of luck" and "lose out" (as Lauren notes). Checked with my wife (almost a native British English speaker!) who tentatively agreed on the negative sense but thought it was highly ambiguous.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    The problem is that Jack Reacher is supposed to be American, and it makes no sense for his interior monologue to contain a British or Australian usage. Lee Child is, in a way, a counterpart to Elizabeth George, an American writer whose characters are English but their interior monologues occasionally slip into American usages (see here).

  21. John said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Trying to figure this out: was the WWII usage a bit of black humor?

    "He got out of the war through luck – he died."

    So, he lucked out [of the war], which then lost its original humorous context.

    [(myl) Frankly, it's not so clear that there ever was any "WWII usage" — I haven't yet seen the citations from letters, quotes newspaper articles, dialogue in novels, or anything else that would support a view that luck out was generally used by American GIs in that period to mean "fail due to bad luck". In fact, I haven't seen even one single such piece of evidence, much less the dozens that you'd expect to be able to find.

    Furthermore, there are lots of examples where WWII veterans use "luck out" to mean "succeed by (good) luck". For example, Here's one example of the many that it's easy to find, from "Busing Battle (Contd.)", Time Magazine 3/13/1972, where the quoted speaker is Bob Dole:

    Next day, when many assumed that the battle was over, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, chairman of the Republican National Committee, slyly offered an almost identical amendment. He again alerted Agnew to be on hand. "We had word," Dole explained later, "that Muskie had to leave, that McGovern had taken off. We thought we might just luck out." The Senate leaders, Democrat Mansfield and Pennsylvania Republican Hugh Scott, were battling hard for a less restrictive antibusing measure of their own. At the end of the roll call, the Dole amendment led, 40 to 37. Then stragglers walked dramatically into the chamber. Dole's information turned out to be wrong: both McGovern and Muskie were still present, and the amendment lost, 48 to 47.

    So the whole "WWII usage" thing might have been invented by some individual who had a personal misunderstanding and falsely attributed it to a whole generation.

    But it's easy to see how luck out could logically go either way. Out has a lot of different interpretations, and some of them refer to changes of state in a way that can turn something positive or neutral into something negative. Thus washing is usually good, but it can be bad for someone to "wash out" of a competition; it can be a good thing for a fire or a light to be going, but bad for it to "go out"; it's generally a bad thing when food or money "runs out" or "gives out"; and so on. This is presumably because in these cases, being "out" (of a competition, of a state of burning, of certain possessions) is a bad thing. But sometimes being "out" (of trouble, of a difficult situation, etc.) is a good thing. And luck can be good luck or bad luck. So from a compositional point of view, the expression luck out could plausibly mean "come to be out of a good situation through bad luck" rather than "come to be out of a bad situation through good luck". (Or perhaps it could mean "change one's state in either direction by chance".)

    However, it's in the nature of lexical items that their meanings are not always a logical combination of the meanings of their parts. And as far as I can tell, in the last 50 years or so of American usage, the luck in phrases like luck out (including also luck out of X, luck into X) has always been good luck, responsible for change from a worse situation to a better one.]

  22. Doreen said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    As UK Lawyer pointed out, "he's no oil painting" is a common enough British expression. It seems Lee Child's transatlantic dialect migration is not yet complete.

  23. erica said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    Looks like Lee Child was SOL when he typed "lucked out". Easy mistake not to make.

  24. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    Me: Irish, lived in Ireland and UK until 1993.

    I know "luck out" only from American sources and can't say I've ever heard it in conversation.

    I suppose it is intended sarcastically. Maybe that's what makes it seem odd; which phrases can work as sarcasm probably really is something you need a native's ear for.

    I'm starting to dislike this Reacher guy ;-)

  25. The Ridger said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    Interestingly, I can read that line about the schoolchildren (they are lucked out) in the negative sense, but the simply "they lucked out" can only mean "they got lucky in a good way" for me.

  26. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    According to Wikipedia, Jim Grant (aka Lee Child) lives in New York with an American wife, a fact that makes his dialect lapses less excusable.

  27. DW said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    Referring only to "luck out" [intransitive]: quick newspaper archive search (not at all exhaustive) from 1900-1949 provides several instances of "luck out" = "get good luck" or so (US) (apparently in the usual modern usage), the earliest dated 1913. I don't find any examples of "luck out" = "get bad luck" or so (which seems to be the Child/Reacher version) (that doesn't mean there aren't any).

    There are other superficially similar usages, including transitive ones like "We were lucked out of the championship" = "We lost the championship by luck", "They lucked out a victory" = "They achieved a victory by luck", etc. The lonesome MWDEU example above seems probably one of these, with (passive) transitive "luck out", not really comparable (IMHO) to the usual modern intransitive use: I casually suppose "lucked out" in this example means "left out, by [bad] luck" or so.

  28. Vireya said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    The first time I came across "lucked out", I was very confused by it. (I'm Australian, and this was probably less than 10 years ago.) It seemed like it should mean something like, "ran out of luck", but the context wasn't clear. Since then I've discovered what Americans mean by it, but it just seemed wrong to me. My brain thought "lucking out" should be a negative thing. Now that the comments here have explained to me WHY it is positive to luck out, I'll be happier to understand its use, but I still won't be saying it myself.

  29. Jimbino said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    I grew up in Chicago, where "he lucked out" was always considered positive. We did, however, eschew reading authors who wrote such stupidities as:

    "lucked out with" where proper usage demands "lucked out in."

    "He had fallen out of the ugly tree, and hit every branch" where proper usage demands "He had fallen out of the ugly tree and hit every branch."

    "He had a head like a bowling ball, and eyes like finger holes, and about as close together." [Misuse of the comma and twisted syntax. Worse than Hemingway's, if that's conceivable]

  30. fev said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    Interesting coincidence. Language Czarina had a negative "luck out" in class two weeks ago (from a 20ish native speaker at an Urban 13 school in Detroit, if that helps). LCz, a Detroit native herself, led with it over dinner because she'd never heard that usage before. Neither had I.

  31. Dave K said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

    "To luck out" is fairly common in my idiolect, and it has always had the positive meaning for me. (American, born 1966, grew up outside of Chicago.) Until I read this post, it had never occurred to me that it could have a negative meaning, though now that I hear people discuss it, I could see how it might have such a meaning in some alternate universe.

  32. David Green said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

    Everything Dave K said (from a native Michigander from birth (1937) to the 1950s, then east coast and west coast).

  33. Danny said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

    Another Australian, I only recall encountering "lucked out" in the positive sense, and understood it to be an Americanism.

    Though I'm surprised that I haven't seen a reference to "lucked into," in this discussion, as in "She lucked into her tenure when the new department opened up." Is this common (or at least understood) in the States?

    If so, I can't help but wonder if the negative "lucked out" gained traction as an assumed antithesis to "lucked into".

  34. michael farris said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 2:23 am

    For me, luck out indicates a positive result that's not earned or necessarily deserved.

    "He lucked out in the looks department" would mean that he beat the genetic odds and looks okay or even attractive despite the rest of his family being ugly.

    "I lucked out on that test" means I passed or even got a good grade despite not studying.

    It can also be used sarcastically, "way to luck out!" can be used to tease and/or console someone who got stuck with a particularly onerous assignment.



  35. Stuart said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 4:03 am

    I'm a Kiwi, and like the Aussies who've contributed to this thread, I was puzzled the first tmie I came across "lucked out" with a positive meaning.

  36. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 6:11 am

    As well as "lucked into" there are also google hits for "lucked in", though not nearly so many (11,000) and it also seems to mean the same as "lucked out", when lucked out means lucky. Of course, "lucky" is a loaded word, always meaning "good luck" rather than "bad luck".

    Just to confirm, as a Brit, 50+, I have always taken "lucked out" as positive, not negative.

  37. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 6:35 am

    For those confused by "oil painting", though I don't know Raymond Chandler all that well I suspected it was something he might have said, and I found one example at least here: "If ever he smiled at himself in a mirror he would’ve cracked it for sure, he was no oil painting" (Marlowe And The Missing Blonde).

    A cursory google shows at least one person thinks Lee Child is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler, so even if "no oil painting" is not a common American phrase it should be familiar to some people. Of course, although Chandler was born and died American he spent a long time in the UK from the age of 12 to 25 and was a British citizen for 50 years 1907-1956. So who knows where he got it from.

  38. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 6:40 am

    Oops, re previous comment – a closer look shows Marlowe and the Missing Blonde I quoted from is not genuine Chandler!

  39. /ni:v/ said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    I'm a native speaker of Irish English and have been living in the US for a little over 2 years. The expression 'to luck out' still confuses me. I know here it means 'to be lucky' but the use of 'out' just leads me instinctively to the opposite meaning.

  40. David said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    "dope outfit"?

  41. ACW said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

    I read the two-novel "Cuckoo" series by Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson in the eighties sometime, and remember being struck by their negative-polarity use of "luck out". The first volume (Farthest Star) came out in 1975. This is the only place I can recall seeing the pessimistic usage.

  42. Christopher said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    Another American here who can only use "luck out" positively. The transitive use cited by DW is also wrong, to my ears.

    Which now has me wondering about the etymology. If it's a war term with negative connotations then you could interpret "he lucked out of the war" as "he got out of the war through (bad) luck" but as a positive term it doesn't seem to make much sense.

  43. John Boyd said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 7:11 am

    Burn(t) out, fall out, bummed out, black out, white out, spin out, take out (kill), cash out, crash out–are examples I came up with (after two minutes thought) of using "out" with a negative connotation. So I was surprised when I first heard "lucked out" in a positive way a couple of years ago. I'm 65 and originally from the UK.

  44. Brett said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    @John Boyd: What do you mean by "cash out"? In my (American) dialect, it means to collect the money one's made (normally via gambling, but it could also apply to other kinds of investments) and get out of the game. It has a generally positive meaning for me. It's possible for somebody to gamble and lose some money, then cash out what they have left. However, if this loss wasn't explicit, when the expression is used, I would normally expect there to have been some winnings involved.

  45. Tony said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

    I'm from Canada and I parse "lucked out" only positively. When the rest of the paragraph didn't jibe, I took it to be sarcasm, as keri did. This talk of "lucked out" as a bad thing is very surprising and enlightening!

  46. Janice Byer said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

    I share Michael Farris's sense that to "luck out" means to escape improbably from a negative fate, a suitably hard-boiled way for a guy like "Reacher" to describe winning the looks lottery, had Mr. Child been so inclined, but alas…

  47. ohwilleke said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    I used to do some copy editing for a Canadian pulp fiction writer and came across similar backward usage issues every now and again. Usage for someone who writes material in high volume and doesn't have eagled eyed well spoken editors is an occupational hazard in much the way that pronunciation is for people who read a lot in print that they never hear spoken aloud. Sooner or later the few points that you have wrong will be caught.

  48. ohwilleke said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    The Springfield Union usage is clearly ironic. It is harder to tell if the novel passage is ironic or sincere.

  49. Michael said,

    October 16, 2011 @ 5:33 am

    (myl) Is this a new form of comment spam?

    Nothing so devious. My adition must have the wrong line number. I was using Gratiano"s comment "All that's spoke is marred"…

  50. Rod H said,

    November 9, 2011 @ 6:50 am

    Don't think I ever heard "lucked out" in Australia until the last decade or so, or in England in the 1950's/60's as a child. To say someone was "out of luck" was common in both countries, though. I wonder if this may be the basis of different understandings, with the American version finding its way here via the mass media but acquiring the meaning of the locally older common phrase?

  51. Osone said,

    September 5, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    I was trolling the net to find the origin of "Lucked out" when I happened upon this blog. I am NZ born 1966, and have always known lucked out to be a postiive. "I lucked out with tickets to the concert"… "Wow, you got good seats… you totally lucked out!". Funny enough, my coleague who was born in 1983 has always understood the phrase in the negative! I wondered if it was a generational thing – but after reading the posts here realise that it has been interpreted both ways by many!

    Having said that, I grew up when Youth was both singular and plural dependant on contextual use. Now we have Youths is in common usage!

  52. Osone said,

    September 5, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

    Ooops! Grammar & Spelling, – should have been (1996) with out th comma & "colleague"

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