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I'm increasingly hearing the phrase "out of pocket" used in America as a colloquialism to mean "away from the office", "unavailable", or "incommunicado".

I apologize for not replying sooner; I have been out of pocket.

  • What is the etymology of this usage?
    It always sounds odd to me, since I had previously always associated the phrase with expenses, e.g., "I had to pay for the service out of pocket," meaning, "I had to pay for the service using my own money."
  • Should either of these usages be avoided?
  • What is the extent of their acceptance?
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I've been seeing "OOP" in email auto-responders and the like for a while, but until recently I assumed it stood for "out of plant". I agree that "out of pocket" sounds bizarre. –  Monica Cellio Jun 6 '11 at 15:10
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I would definitely avoid using the phrase with what's clearly not the standard meaning. If it is indeed 'dialectal' or whatever, I guess those who already use it that way will continue to do so for some time. But that's no good reason for the mainstream to actually favour/perpetuate potentially confusing terminology. –  FumbleFingers Jun 6 '11 at 16:21
    
I've never seen "out of pocket" used for anything other than an expense. I wonder if the use of "OOP" for "out of office" may occur just because "OOO" makes a pretty bad TLA - i.e. you write OOP, but say "out of office". –  Marthaª Jun 6 '11 at 20:11
    
@Martha: I always hear/see it explicitly spoken/written as "Out of Pocket". In fact, I don't think I've ever seen it abbreviated as "OOP" until now. –  ESultanik Jun 6 '11 at 20:40
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I've heard out of pocket used to mean "not available" for long enough that I can't remember the first time I heard it used that way (at least five years). It is different from out of town or anything like that; out of pocket has a sense like "unreachable"; if someone is out of pocket, forget about getting in touch with them. Might be related to the use of in the pocket to mean "synchronized", "in the groove", with regard to playing music, but this is pure speculation on my part. –  jyc23 Jun 10 '11 at 1:58

8 Answers 8

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Here's a cite from the OED:

1946 Sunday Times-Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) 12 May I. 7/1 [They] told citizens here that somebody was ‘out of pocket’ in Bowie and Miller counties the nights of the killings, and urged them to recall whether anyone they knew was missing on those dates. 1973 J. PETERSON Sicilian Slaughter 53 Her hands shook as she dialed. But her connection was out of pocket. 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.

I first heard this in the US Southern states, and some attest to it being common on the East Coast. This is a regionalism, and while quite old, it should be considered informal and would not be universally understood by all US speakers. Those on the West Coast, for example, would be largely unfamiliar with it, and only use "out of pocket" to refer to self-expense payments.

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I'm from Philadelphia and I first heard the "Southern" usage about a year or two ago when it started popping up. I recently moved ~215km South to Washington D.C. where I hear it much more often. I have heard people from Los Angeles use the "Southern" usage, however, they may have picked it up recently. –  ESultanik Jun 6 '11 at 17:08
    
I'm from California, which I believe is still located on the West Coast (dude). I've never heard the phrase, but I like it. –  Evik James Sep 21 '11 at 13:35

The OED has been since updated and their earliest citation is in a 1908 story by ‘O. Henry’ (real name William Porter) called Buried Treasure, published in Ainslee's:

Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can.

It means you're out of reach or unavailable, and one suggestion is it's the opposite of in [someone's] pocket, which means you're under someone's control or influence. Alternatively, it may be the opposite of another phrase, to put (or keep) in [someone's] pocket, meaning to keep something for yourself or conceal. But this is speculation and the real origin is unknown.

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In BE at least I haven't heard of it other than talking about money and specifically money that you should have got.

Out of Pocket means you had to pay for something yourself, or you suffered financially on some arrangement.

edit:
I can't find "out of pocket" or "out of place" mentioned in any email system in place of "out of office". There is a common "Oops ..." error message when a mail couldn't be delivered but I can't see how that is confused.

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This is the same in US usage - spreadsheets and expense reports often have a column titled "OOP," standing for "out-of-pocket" expenses. These can indeed be claimed on invoices, however; the notation indicates that the person in question had unbudgeted costs. The OP above is indicating an entirely separate usage, which means "out of the office," or unavailable in some way. Some have opined that this might be a reference to US football, in which the quarterback might "leave the pocket." It's regional, largely Southern. –  The Raven Jun 6 '11 at 15:20
    
@Raven - edited the answer, misread the Q, never heard that usage. Perhaps confused with "out of office" replies? –  mgb Jun 6 '11 at 15:21

I am from the South, but I didn't think that it was a regional expression, until I just used to explain that I wasn't able to meet someone, and my correspondent - who is in British Columbia - thought that I had financial difficulties.

The expression always made sense to me, from the first time that I heard it, because in the rural areas, it is sometimes difficult to get from Point A to Point B. When you are in an isolated area, far from a major - or even medium sized city, it makes it difficult to get to other places. These isolated areas could be considered "pockets" because they are hard to get out of and so "out of pocket" refers to the difficulty to get from one location to another.

It is a helluva lot easier for say, someone from New York to hop on a plane to get to Paris than it would be for say someone from Long Key, in Florida to get to Orlando.

To me, "out of pocket" would not refer to being unavailable in an office, but more or less being in a different geographical area (pocket) that would be too inconvenient at the time to try to make it.

It's like if someone were in Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil and there is a meeting in Adelaide, Australia, then that person would have to fly from Mato Grosso do Sul to Sao Paulo and from there to Miami and then to Atlanta and connect to Los Angeles and from there to Sydney and then to Adelaide by which time 36 hours have passed and the meeting would already be over - that would DEFINITELY be considered "out of pocket".

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When a quarterback is "out of the pocket," he has moved away from the protection provided by his offensive linemen. tpb

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I live in L.A. and hear it all the time. I first heard the expression used regularly by my colleagues in Wisconsin, particularly by one of them who grew up in upstate New York. I work in an organization now with offices in NY, DC, SF, and LA, and our people come from everywhere. So whatever the origin, this sounds common to me.

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I was told it is an old military term when soldiers were on leave. They had a system on the wall where they would take their card out of the pocket on the wall when they were heading out on leave. They would say, "Bob is out of pocket" or on leave.

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The phrase out of pocket comes from pimps back in the 60's and 70's. They would say "this hoe is out of pocket" meaning she is no longer paying the pimp the percentage she was suppose to pay for the services of the pimp. What were his services idk, but that is where the street phrase came from as the prostitute was not reachable and could not be found, plus he was no longer receiving money hence "out of pocket".

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A source for this would be welcome! –  medica Feb 3 at 19:59

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