More lucking out

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As discussed at length in "Lucking out" (10/8/2011), luck out is a well-established American idiom meaning "to succeed through good luck". But it's not all that common — about one in ten million words in COCA — and even a few Americans seem to be be a bit uncertain about its meanings, confused into thinking that luck out might actually mean "to fail through bad luck"  (perhaps by echoes of "out of luck" or idioms like "ground out" or "drop out"). This idea is substantially more widespread in other parts of the English-speaking world, and perhaps has a significant proportion of mindshare in Australia; in any case, it caused the British novelist Lee Child to make an uncharacteristic mistake by using the "fail through bad luck" meaning in interior monologue attributed to his American hero, Jack Reacher.

But in the course of writing that earlier post, I came across a curious claim. According to the entry on luck out in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, the 1985 Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (2nd ed.) claimed that

. . . 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 his chips.

The editors of MWDEU note that "we have collected almost no evidence of the older sense cited by Harper", and add that "The little evidence we have showing luck used as a verb during World War II is suggestive of good luck, not bad".

If there really were an old U.S.-military-associated negative-valence luck out idiom, that would make Child's novelistic use more plausible, since Reacher is an army MP who was (fictionally) born around 1959 and raised in a military family on U.S. bases around the world. But I've done a bit more poking around in historical sources, and all the evidence I've found confirms MWDEU's suggestion that no such idiom ever existed.

Most early hits for the letter sequence "luck out" from sources like Google Books are not what we're looking for — instead, they're things like "try your luck out west", or "We had the same sort of luck out in Africa", or "leave luck out of consideration entirely", or "No luck — out comes the flask", or whatever. So a more efficient method is to look for the sequence "lucked out". There are still some false hits — mostly OCR errors — but the odds are better.

The earliest clear example of intransitive lucked out that I've found so far is this (clearly positive) one in the NYT archive:

"Rothwell's Work Wins Cane Spree", New York Times 12/16/1911:

There's another (positive) one in Roe Fulkerson, "Pillrollers' Philosophy", Southern Pharmaceutical Journal, 1914, where a young man is hired on the basis of an inspection of his savings book, thinks at the time that this is simply good luck, but later decides that he deserved to win:

He gave me the job and explained to the two other fellows that they could never hope to get a position handling other people's money until they had learned to take care of their own. […]

"At the time I thought I had lucked out. But as I look at it now I know he was right about it […]

I haven't yet found anything in the 1920s. Google Books claims 16 hits for "lucked out" between 1930 and 1950. 10 of these are OCR errors (e.g. "lucked out" for "kicked out", or "lucked out his eyes" for "plucked out his eyes"), or hits that give no content, or cases where the publication date is wrong, or duplicates. One is transitive as well as positive ("…lucked out a five-day furlough"). Three are clear examples of intransitive "lucked out" meaning "succeed due to good luck":

Roark Bradford, John Henry, 1931:

But Sam told me you was a country nigger wid more wages den brains. So when you turned dat jack on yo' deal, I thought hit was luck, and when you made high, low and de game and out, I thought you lucked out. But now, you's tawkin' like a gamblin'-man, and hit ain't no need in us gamblin' ag'in' each other, 'cause we plays even.

Ralph Henry Barbour, "Shoes of the Mighty", Boys' Life, Aug. 1934:

That first set had taken too much out of Tyson. He yielded a love game to Joe and then captured the next on his own service after it had been thrice deuced. But that was his last stand. Joe tore through the subsequent five games, working at startling speed, to a 6-1 win.

Joe was well off the court before he remembered that he hadn't shaken hand with with opponent, hurried back, told Tyson he has "lucked out" and that he had 'certainly enjoyed it" — that, too, in the best Overton manner — and then, charging past congratulatory friends, made for the club house at a limping gallop.

American Rifleman, 1944:

We stomped into the cabin, speaking loudly of fools who "lucked out" while good hunters starved.

One other example is probably also a positive instance, but the "snippet view" gives so little context that it's impossible to tell:

Vereen Bell, Two of a Kind, 1943:

they lucked out and won any.

And there's one example in a 1942 Time Magazine headline: "Lucked Out", 9/28/1942. The article deals with a war correspondent who may or may not have been captured in North Africa. Luck figures both negatively and positively in the story (which does not contain any instances of luck out):

If indestructible Larry Allen's luck had indeed run out (his capture is still not officially confirmed), he could console himself with the knowledge that his courageous efforts to get the news had made newspaper history. He brashed his way aboard the British Mediterranean fleet two years ago—the first reporter in either World War I or II to see action from the bridge of a fighting ship. The result was exciting first-person copy, and two miraculous escapes from death: 1) when Allen and the aircraft carrier Illustrious survived a seven-hour Stuka-torpedo plane attack in January 1941; 2) when Allen, who could not swim, almost went to the bottom with the torpedoed British cruiser Galatea.

On balance,  we can probably count this as a case of "failing due to bad luck"; but the telegraphic nature of headlines makes it hard to be sure what's going on.

Between 1950 and 1960, Google Books claims 34 hits for "lucked out". Again, many represent OCR errors, or are from publications whose date of publication is wrongly identified.  After eliminating these, I found 16 examples where "lucked out" clearly mean "to succeed due to good luck":

The New Yorker, 1951:

Charlie, he told me, had been arrested by a plain-clothesman, 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.

The Numismatist 65(1), 1952:

however after tossing a coin to decide between two who had the highest points, Mr. Leachman lucked out with the Vatican set of coins as the winner

American Aviation, 1952:

As it turned out, it was not so critical; the calculated risk lucked out. The current attainment date of the 143-wing Air Force is January 1, 1956.

Time Magazine, 1953:

Said Baker: "I just lucked out on him." [see below]

Contact Point, 1953:

Bud Dashnaw lucked out in Reno this year and bought a new Chevy, so I understand from the grapevine. Is that called "beginner's" luck, Bud?

Mari Sandoz, Winter Thunder, 1954:

The next day he lucked out. While washing in the creek, he caught a snapping turtle. Meat!

Hawaiian Shell News, 1956:

… he was afraid he would have to leave Hawaii without ever finding Cyp. tessellata, but as he expressed it, "he lucked out a oouple of weeks ago at Brown's Camp with a pair of beauties*"

House Armed Services Committee Hearings, 1957

I feel that I have lucked out, have a darned good position and a darned good retirement pay.

Marius Lodeesen, "The Art of Flying", Flying Magazine, Nov. 1958:

"Nice job, Skipper," the First Officer will say.
"Oh, just lucked out," grumbles the Captain.

Car and driver, 1958:


Lore of the California Vaquero, 1958:

Mishaps and petty accidents occurred quite often in the vaqueros workday but fortunately, in most of them the range rider "lucked out" and got only a few bruises or suffered nothing worse than the laughter of the other men.

Sports Illustrated, 1958:

After trying for eigth years, without success, to win the Doherty Women's amateur golf tournament at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Mary Ann Downey of Baltimore finally lucked out, beat Marlene Stewart Streit of Font Hills, Ontario 1 up in 37 holes.

Wyoming Wild Life, 1958:

He'd applied for a bighorn sheep hunting permit for the past three years but had never 'lucked out' in the drawing. "Do you suppose the work the Department is doing now will provide more sheep hunting permits in the future?" he asked.

Always Another Dawn, 1960

I remember it as one long Acey-Deucy tournament, which in the end I lucked out and won (the pot was $28.00).

Greg Boyington, Tonya, 1960

Truelove had lucked out without so much as a scratch.

The MATS flyer, 1960:

The very fact that I'm here to write this is proof that I and my helpers have successfully figured things out — or lucked out, so far. But the future scares me.

There was one example between 1950 and 1960 that may mean "fail due to bad luck" (Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1957):

However, when I called him up to the board to do a very simple question, he indicated he was very unsure of himself so I kidded him because he did not get it right and said, I guess you "lucked" out.

It's possible that the quote refers not to the student's failure when called to the board but rather to his success on an earlier occasion — but no additional context is available in the "snippet view", so we can't tell.

Turning to the archives at Time Magazine, in addition to the 1942 example previous discussed, there is one other (clearly positive) example from before 1960 (Time Magazine, "Ace of Aces", 3/23/1953):

That afternoon, the Sabre jet pilots shot down six Red MIGs. But the one they were proudest of was Baker's: it was the twelfth MIG he had destroyed and made him the leading jet-to-jet ace of the Korean war. Previous record holder: another Texan, Major George A. Davis of Lubbock, who destroyed eleven MIGs in ten weeks, then was shot down himself (TIME, Feb. 18, 1952). Said Baker: "I just lucked out on him."

So to sum up the citations prior to 1960, we have 23 apparent examples of positive lucked out (starting in 1911), one possible example of negative luck out (from 1957), and perhaps another negative one from a headline in 1942.

If it were really true that "luck out was commonly used during World War Ii in some such sense as 'to meet with bad luck; run out of luck'",  I would expect to find significant evidence in novels, stories, and journalistic quotations from the 1940s and 1950s. The fact that we find none at all, with the possible exception of the 1942 Time Magazine title, supports the idea that intransitive luck out has had roughly its modern meaning in American usage over the past century, with the main thing that's changed being the frequency, which began increasing rapidly around 1965:


  1. GeorgeW said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    Wow, that is a lot of data (and a lot of work). Thanks.

    [(myl) You're welcome — but with online searching, I spent well under an hour gathering data, and maybe half an hour adding the commentary. So thank Google Books, the New York Times archive, and Time Magazine's archive.]

    Does 'luck' (at least with AmE speakers) have a weak positive valence that needs to be overtly negated to be negative, i.e. 'bad luck,' 'unlucky.' Statements such as 'ran out of luck,' 'we had no luck' and the like suggest a basic positive connotation.

  2. Brian said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    GeorgeW: Speaking only as an AmE speaker (not a linguist), I would say definitely so. Although I can think of a few special contexts where the unqualified word can refer to both good and bad luck, such as: "That's the luck of the draw."

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    The Time 9/28/42 citation has
    He brashed his way aboard the British Mediterranean fleet two years ago
    which is the first time I've ever seen "brash" as a verb.

  4. Martin J Ball said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    "luck out was commonly used during World War Ii "
    Was this the part of World War I before the Americans got round to joining in …? ;)

  5. DW said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    Quick Newspaperarchive search 1950-1959 shows dozens of examples of "luck out" in its usual modern ('positive') US sense (= "get good luck"), plus a few unclear examples, plus one 'negative' (= "get bad luck") example:

    Reno [NV] Evening Gazette, 28 June 1954: p. 11:

    //[title] SUN ECLIPSE TO BE MISSED BY NEVADANS / Renoites won't be able to see the eclipse of the sun Wednesday. / …. / Anyone east of the Rockies and north of the Tropics has the chance to see this great spectacle of nature but this time Reno just lucked out.//

    The Historical Dictionary of American Slang shows both versions of "luck out" although most of the citations for the 'negative' version are from suboptimal sources (word-lists, old memories, etc.).

    As I noted earlier (other post), I found only 'positive' examples pre-1950; these included several in the 1920's and one in 1913.

    [(myl) Thanks! What's the 1913 example?]

  6. Jerry K said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

    Isn't an implicit positive valence of "luck" what makes the lyric of "Born Under a Bad Sign" work? "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all."
    Never mind the over-negation. The lyricist wrote the way people talk. It's not intended to be a logic puzzle.

  7. DW said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

    Washington Post, 20 March 1913: p. 8[?]: //"Dutch" Schaefer swears an oath for revenge on the morrow. "They simply lucked out on us today, boys. We'll show 'em that they're not in our class next time, won't we?" he said, addressing some of his bunch after the game. Unfortunately he was forced to answer his own question.//

  8. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

    One thing that didn't occur during the previous post and its discussion, but has just now, is that while "lucked out" was in common usage when and where I grew up (SW US, 60s-70s), I think it's a usage more correlated to children than adults. That's my intuition, though I could be quite off-base.

    Was there any consensus in the previous discussion about the significance of the mixed-usage among anglophones outside of North America? That implies to me that "lucked-out" was propagated though the extra-NA community via American media, mostly films, and as the usage was alien and not easily understood, even in context, it developed ambivalent and infrequent usages in these cultures.

  9. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    ("didn't occur to me")

  10. Janice Byer said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

    FWIW, the Cambridge Online Dictionary, a product of the Cambridge University Press, gives only one definition under "British English" for "lucked out" – the "American informal" meaning of positive luck.

  11. Janice Byer said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

    To be precise, the COD's British English (BE) definition of "luck out" is "to be very lucky" and its BE definition of "lucky" is "having good things happen to you by chance".

  12. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 10:12 pm

    @DW: Isn't that 1913 quote in the positive sense? The speaker is complaining that his team's opponents "lucked out", i.e. that they won due to luck.

  13. Duncan said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    @ Ran Ari-Gur: Yes, the 1913 quote is a positive "luck out"

    Check DW's two replies again. He said he found all positive pre-1950, incl. a 1913 example, which Mark L (myl) asked about, so he cited it in a followup (hmm, the spellchecker doesn't like followup, wanting a -, but wiktionary says it's an acceptable alternative, same with spellchecker for that matter) reply.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

    Yes, the 1913 one is positive. DW noted that two posts up from where DW posted it.

  15. DW said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 11:01 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur: Yes.

    The only pre-1960 'negative' instance which I've seen so far which is fully convincing to me is the one I quote from the Reno paper above (1954).

    HDAS shows a 1957 'negative' example but the citation is short and I'd like to see more context.

    MYL's 1942 headline above is (to me) not exactly interpretable.

    The ostensibly 'negative' sense in MYL's 1957 example (above) seems likely an artifact of the despicable snippet view: a more extensive excerpt (conceivably still misleading) is:

    //… I announced he got top score in the arithmetic test. I put him to work as a student helper. However, when I called him up to the board to do a very simple question, he indicated he was very unsure of himself so I kidded him because he did not get it right and said, I guess you "lucked" out.//

    … justifying (I think) MYL's caveat above.

  16. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    I ran "lucked out" through the genealogybank archive. Sorted by relevance, the first hit is a Dear Abby column printed November 7, 1979, in which a reader chides Abby for using "lucked out" in the positive sense, citing The Dictionary of American Slang (Wentworth & Flexner). Abby cites Webster's New World Dictionary in support of the positive sense.

    The second hit is an item printed December 7, 1970 in the Omaha World Herald. In a column by one L.M. Boyd he asks whether to "luck out" is good or bad and posits that women use it in the negative and men in the positive sense.

    Sorting by date, the earliest example I can find is from the Boston Journal of October 10, 1904, reporting on the upcoming football game between Dartmouth and Williams:

    "While the experts say that Dartmouth should win, this opinion does not obtain at Williamstown, where the purple is really more confident than she has been since 1901, the year when Williams won a virtual, though lucked out of an actual victory over her ancient foe."

    The next is from the Dallas Morning News of May 16, 1907, reporting on a baseball game:

    "The Navigators were lucked out of another score in the eighth inning, when Wallace landed one on top of the skating rink outside the park and it bounded back."

    These are clear examples of "lucked out" in the negative sense. I have found several others from the same era in sporting contexts.

    {(myl) Those are both (passive) transitive constructions: I've seen several others from the same general (pre-WWI) era, where "to luck SOMEONE out of SOMETHING" seems to mean roughly "to deprive SOMEONE of SOMETHING by luck (as opposed to skill or merit)". In that case, the luck is good for the depriver and bad for the deprivee.]

    But to confuse the issue, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram of September 9, 1907 reports on a double header between the Fort Worth and the Oklahoma City teams: "The [Oklahoma City] Indians lucked out the first contest…" Oklahoma city won the game 2-0. So this is a clear example of "lucked out" used (transitively) in the positive sense. The same paper used it the same way at least once in 1910.

    My conclusion? It is a mess. There clearly is support for both senses, seemingly arising at about the same time.

  17. Ethan said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 11:37 pm

    @Richard Hershberger: "The Navigators were lucked out of another score in the eighth inning, when Wallace landed one on top of the skating rink outside the park and it bounded back."

    Are you sure that's an example of negative usage? "were lucked out of" to me sounds equivalent to "lost because the other team lucked out (positive)".

  18. DW said,

    October 11, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

    @Richard Hershberger: I think the 1904, 1907 citations exemplify transitive "luck out", which is (IMHO) entirely different.

    Did you find any early examples of 'negative' intransitive "luck out", comparable to the Child/Reacher example, where (e.g.) "he lucked out" = "he had bad luck" or so?

    Maybe the reference books have been inconsistent because of not distinguishing transitive from intransitive applications?

    Anyway, for myself, I'll reiterate that I have been addressing only intransitive "luck out".

  19. mithyran said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 1:38 am

    Sorry for an off-topic comment, but Gell-Mann and Ruhlen have a new paper out on PNAS on "The Origin and Evolution of Word Order".

    My initial impressions… are not exactly positive.

  20. Neil Tarrant said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 3:07 am

    In the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage mentioned usage "as in describing a soldier who was a casualty of battle", a cynic might suggest that this too is, at least partially, a positive usage – due to [bad] luck (an injury), a positive outcome occurred (being removed from the field of battle, and presumably further danger of more serious injury or death).

    One can imagine a character from Blackadder Goes Forth, or Catch 22, if not using the specific words, expressing such an idea.

  21. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 6:31 am

    @ Neil
    Isn't there a line in Wilfred Owen about a 'nice safe wound to nurse' surely luckier that being killed, so maybe not even cynical.

  22. Stub said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 7:24 am

    The Spartanburg, South Carolina branch of my wife's family uses "lucked up" instead of "lucked out," the only place I've ever encountered that variation.

  23. John Walden said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    Evan Morris mentions his parents' claim that there was a 'had bad luck" meaning of "lucked out" in WW2 but there's still little or no evidence of it:

    Anthony Burgess's assertion was odd. Would he have taken exception to "look over" being so different from "overlook"?

  24. Mary Bull said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    I'd like to see a comparison for the number of hits from "got lucky" (which I think always has a positivie sense) with these results for positive "lucked out."

    As I commented on MYL's earlier post, as a native Texan, born 1927, I did hear the expression "lucked out" (positive only) in my teens and 20s. However, I'd now like to add that then and now (currently I live in Tennessee) I hear "got lucky" far more often, or it seems so to me, than "lucked out" (positive). Also, never in my whole life have I heard "lucked out" used in the sense of "had bad luck."

  25. GeorgeW said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    @Mary Bull: I grew up in the South (50s & 60s). As a high school and college student, 'got lucky' often referred to one's sexual success on a date (whether real or claimed).

  26. Mark F. said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    GeorgeW – I suspect "luck" has a positive valence for non-US varieties of English too, just based on the meaning of the word "lucky". Other evidence, at least in US English, comes from expressions like "they had no luck", and "wish me luck".

    I would have thought those expressions were not specific to the US, but I don't know.

    The history of the word "happy" provides an interesting point of comparison.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    I have no idea what "won a virtual" is supposed to mean in that 1904 sports story. I would have thought it might be a tie (like the classic "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29"), but the first internet reference I googled up says that the score of the Williams-Dartmouth game of Oct. 19, 1901 was 6-2 in Dartmouth's favor.

  28. Mr Punch said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    @J.W. Brewer – the construction is a bit odd, but it means "won a virtual victory though deprived of an actual one." I certainly recall American WWII vets using "lucked out" in the positive sense only; agree with GeorgeW on sexual meaning of "got lucky" (though that's not the only meaning of course).

  29. Mr Punch said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    I'd say "luck" is generally positive, unless otherwise stated. You can "luck into" something but rarely "luck out" of it. "Luck out" seems to me to be similar to "win out" – it's applied to a favorable outcome of some situation, often ongoing, that might well have gone the other way. I do wonder if non-Americans may sometimes confuse "luck out" (positive) with "struck out" (negative).

  30. DW said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

    The first 'negative' citation in HDAS appears to be legitimate on review of the original (Saturday Evening Post, 10 Aug. 1957, p. 43): //Barney should have had the honor … but he'd lucked out. He'd given up a wife and a spot in God's country to die at sixty-four angels.//

    This is from an air-combat yarn (not WW II, supersonic jets; 64 angels = 64,000 feet of altitude). Fighter pilot Barney has been shot down, he has "lucked out", so his comrade pilot gets the "honor" of shooting down the enemy plane.

  31. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    @Duncan, Ellen K., DW: Thanks. I had a brain fart. :-)

  32. MB said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    Though I've never heard it spoken, "bad lucked out" has some currency on the Internet, with about 900 hits in all.

  33. Dakota said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    No wonder I've never been able to "get lucky" with anyone British.

    I don't suppose they want to "make out" either.

  34. DW said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    Maybe Reacher's best justification so far?

    Army Digest ("The Official Magazine of the Department of the Army"), vol. 21, no. 6 (June 1966): p. 9:

    SFC Warren Le Mon, "Anyone Seen YANK?":

    [full view via Hathi Trust]

    //YANK, through the artistry of Sergeant George Baker, gave us one of the American folk-heroes of the 'forties — Sad Sack. He was a GI prototype of Chaplin's little tramp, the guy who always lucks out — the foil, the pawn, the eternal last man in the doughnut line.//

    ["Yank" was a WW II army magazine which carried the "Sad Sack" comic series.]

  35. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    @Mary Bull:

    I'd like to see a comparison for the number of hits from "got lucky" (which I think always has a positivie sense) with these results for positive "lucked out."

    Here you go. Although Google Ngrams cannot filter out the negative instances, they seem to be very few according to the discussion above.

    As a side benefit, Stub, you can see that "lucked up" has enough currency to feature in the plot, although it's clearly less frequent than "lucked out".

  36. Mary Bull said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 6:48 am

    @Alon Lischinsky : Thanks. I'm pleased to see my impression confirmed.

    @George@: Yes, you're right. And though I can't remember when I first heard "got lucky" used referring to sexual success on a date, it did have that meaning among h.s and college students in the U.S. South during the 1940s, too, when I was growing up.

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