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Recently a co-worker and I debated the proper use of "out to lunch". The argument stemmed from conversation over the appropriate preposition to use, and became particularly heated when we tried to determine if lunch was a verb, or was short for "luncheon" — or some other, older word. (Yes, he referenced "lunchentach".) Convention aside, what is the proper usage of the phrase?

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In British English, “out to lunch” is used as a colloquial euphemism for “crazy”, so I tend to say “out for lunch” to avoid ambiguity. “Out at lunch” sounds awkward to me; I would simply say “at lunch”. – maniacyak Mar 20 '11 at 11:35
@maniac: I am Midwestern American and know the phrase as "crazy." No idea where I picked it up. – MrHen Mar 23 '11 at 20:27
up vote 5 down vote accepted

"Out for lunch" makes me think the person will be bringing the food back with them.

John went out for lunch.

John went out for sandwiches.

John went out for staples.

I have heard the other variations and they seem to mean various things:

John is out at lunch. Can I take a message?

We went out to lunch at the new burger joint.

Can I take you out to lunch?

I have also heard the phrase used to imply someone is "out to lunch" or not entirely there mentally. Context seems to be the only clue that this meaning was intended:

Why did he do that? Is he out to lunch?

When talking to someone while eating, I find this more common:

Can I call you back? I am at lunch.

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"Out to lunch" simply means going out (of your place of residence) for the purpose of having lunch. Here, the word lunch is used in the verb form as opposed to its noun form which indeed is a shortened version of luncheon.

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"going out" conflicts with the use as a sign at an office door (or wherever one'd put up a sign so concerned parties may see it). I always took it to mean "I went out to lunch". And as for "place of residence". Uh, well, I wouldn't leave my place of residence for lunch, usually. I would, however, leave my office to go to lunch. – Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 19 '11 at 17:47

Here (central Scotland) we would never use "Out To Lunch" when talking about lunch - it tends to be used to mean that you are mental:-)

You could say going "Out for Lunch" and that would be fine.

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