The idiomatic expression "caught flat-footed" originated in sports at the beginning of the 20th century according the following source:

  • caught unprepared, taken by surprise, as in The reporter's question caught the President flat-footed. This usage comes from one or another sport in which a player should be on his or her toes, ready to act. [c. 1900 ]


Etymonline indicates "baseball" as the sport in which the expression was first used and agrees that it is from the early 1900c:

  • Meaning "unprepared" is from 1912, U.S. baseball slang, on notion of "not on one's toes.


while the following source, together with others, suggest that the idiomatic expression is much older (early 18th century) and was originally used during horse races:

Caught flat-footed

  • This phrase traces back to the reign of Queen Anne, where it was applied to horses left at the line after the start of the race. Later, this term was used to describe a runner not on his toes and left at the mark when the foot race began, and eventually generalized to mean anyone asleep at the switch.

(Word And Phrase Origins)


  • Is there evidence (I couldn't find any) that flat-footed meant unprepared as early as the 18th century?

  • Was baseball the sport in which the later usage of the expression was first used, making it an AmE Idiom?

3 Answers 3


Dictionary coverage of the slang term 'flat-footed'

In U.S. English slang, the earliest slang meaning of the term flat-footed seems to have occurred as an extension of flat in the sense of broke, penniless, or destitute. J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) dates the adjective flat in this sense to 1832–1833:

flat adj. {short for flat broke 'plainly and utterly broke'} ... 1833 Life & Adv[entures] of Crockett 20: In the slang of the backwoods, one swore ... he would never be ... flat, without a dollar.

Lighter's entry for flat-footed follows:

flat-footed adj. 1. destitute; FLAT. 1853 "P. Paxton" In Texas 204: The quondam owner is said to be flat broke or flat footed and must beg, borrow, or steal for a stake. 1858 {S. Hammet} Piney Woods 94: And then if you are flat-footed, I'd lend you a stake to start on.

2. Orig. Sports. unprepared. Now S[tandard] E[nglish] 1908 Fleming Unforget. Season 154: Frank Chance ... is flatfooted against the "spit ball." 1912, 1928, 1940, 1955, 1963 in OEDS.

A third early meaning of the term appears in John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848):

FLAT-FOOTED. Firm-footed, resolute; firmly, resolutely. A term belonging to the Western political slang with which the halls of Congress, as well as the newspapers, are now deluged.

Col. M—— attempted to define his position, but being unable, exclaimed: I'm an independent, flat-footed man, and am neither for nor against the mill-dam.—Tennessee Newspaper.

Mr. Pickens, of South Carolina, has come out flat-footed for the administration—a real red-hot democrat, dyed in the wool—denounces Mr. Calhoun—and is ready now to take any high office. But the mission to England is beyond his reach.—N. Y. Herald, June 30, 1846.

A Washington correspondent for the New York Commercial Advertiser, in speaking of the opinions to be advanced by President Polk in his Message, says:

The ground taken is to be flat-footed for the Sub-Treasury—flat-footed for the repeal of the Tariff of 1842, and the substitution of a 20 per cent. maximum, &c.

This use of flat-footed in the sense of "fully committed" comes from the west—the same part of the country where the term was sometimes used to mean destitute.

It seems unlikely, however, that the "unprepared" sense of flat-footed emerged directly from either of these earlier slang meanings.

Google Books matches for 'caught flat-footed'

One early usage of flat-footed in the "caught by surprise" sense of the term explicitly contrasts that state with being "on one's toes," indicating that flat-footed as "unprepared" in the sporting sense of the word began as a literal description of a player standing flat on his feet instead of having his weight forward on his toes, ready to run. From Hugh Fullerton, "The Baseball Primer," in The American Magazine (June 1912):

Flat-footed—Unprepared, caught napping. Any player who is caught napping off a base by a throw from pitcher or catcher is caught "flat-footed." The opposite of "on the toes." Flat-footed also is applied to runners who do not rise on the balls of the feet in sprinting but allow their heels to touch. Also, such runners are kidney-footed or slough-footed!

Slightly earlier is this match from "The Battle of Base-Ball," in Saint Nicholas (September 1911):

Perhaps the most vital thing an out-fielder has to learn is to "get rid of the ball." You have no use for it, after you have caught it. Some other fielder has urgent need of it. Give it to him. Don't hold it—throw it. Throw it to the right place, but throw it, anyway. When you see [Ty] Cobb, [Zach] Wheat, or [Tris] Speaker making a double play from the out-field, you realize what a quick "get-away" is. Men making ready to run on swift throwers like these are always in doubt whether they can beat the throw; many a man has been caught flat-footed, jogging slowly back to base after a fly has been caught by a lively out-fielder, because he threw in in a twinkling with speed and accuracy, to the base toward which the runner was returning too slowly.

The 1908 Frank Chance example cited by Lighter, however, appears to be using flat-footed in its older sense of "completely." Here is the context in which the term appears in Gordon Fleming, The Unforgettable Season, quoting from a newspaper article that originally appeared in the New York Evening Telegram of (August 5, 1908):

Philadelphia, Aug. 5—Frank Chance who is a member of the joint rules committee of the major leagues, is flatfooted against the "spit ball" and is instituting a campaign to have legislation passed next Winter abolishing it. The leader of the Cubs has never been an advocate of the "spit-ball" delivery, but until his recent visit to Buffalo to watch the work of Pitcher {George} McConnell, of the Bisons, he never actively opposed it.

Google Books finds a total of five matches for flat-footed in the sense of "off-guard or unprepared" from the period 1911–1912—but nothing earlier. All of those matches refer to baseball, and specifically to base runners, not batters or fielders.

The first figurative, nonsports instance of flat-footed in the sense of "by surprise" or "dead to rights" or "with one's guard down" that I could find in a series of Google Books searches is from Cosmopolitan, volumes 61–62 (1916) [combined snippets]:

He was remembering vividly the time, on a dim front porch, in a hammock, he had kissed Martha's cheek. Then anger came—bitter, helpless anger. For it was also Ban who had caught him, flat-footed, spooning with Bessie Alston down on the lake shore, and, as a result, had fastened on him that odious nickname, "Henry the Ninth."

Early newspaper matches for 'caught flat-footed'

Early newspaper matches tell a somewhat different story, however. The earliest match in an Elephind search for the phrase is from California and involves a horse race. From Fred Mulholland, "Toupee, with Clark as Pilot, Beats Cloudlight by a Nose," in the San Francisco [California] Call (January 16, 1906):

The Oakland stable's filly Viola B captured the baby race, going to the post second in demand to Grace G. The latter miss zigzagged about, finishing unplaced. Radtke on Viola B was caught flat-footed when the barrier went up, but succeeded in picking his way through, winning by a length from Silver Line, a 60 to 1 shot. Reba, the Griffin entry, ran third at 30 to 1.

It is noteworthy here that the rider Radtke—not the horse Viola B—is the individual said to have been caught flat-footed. Nevertheless, the occurrence doesn't involve baseball. Nor do the next three matches all of which are from the New York Tribune, involve horse racing, and occur within a period of 34 days. From "Now for the Brooklyn," in the New York Tribune (May 21, 1906):

Delhi has started twice this year. He had speed on his first appearance, but stopped as if shot, and no chance in his second attempt, as he was caught flatfooted at the start and knocked out of his stride, and badly shut off in the first quarter when he got to racing. He won the race last year, although the field was lacking in class as compared with the one to-day, and he cannot be dismissed too lightly.

From "Go Between Wins," in the New York Tribune (June 22, 1906):

It was an unfortunate start, for which, however, Mars Cassidy was not entirely to blame. Proper would not wheel and was sidewise, while Tokalon, the winner of the Brooklyn Handicap, and Agile were caught flatfooted and practically left at the post. Their chances were ruined then and there, and it was the more unfortunate, as all three closed a big gap and were close enough up at the end to indicate that with an even break all three might have played an important part in the race.

From "Defeat for Roseben," in the New York Tribune (June 23, 1906):

August Belmont's Okenite caught The Wrestler tiring at the turn for home and was second two lengths before the favorite, Kentucky Beau. The last named, heavily backed f[ro]m 3 to 1 to 8 to 5, was caught flatfooted at the start and all but left at the post. He made up a lot of ground, and, with an even break, would probably have forced Red River out.

But the next 28 instances—all from the period 1909–1912—do explicitly involve baseball. Here are the first four (the full set from 1909). From Addie Joss, "Winter Baseball," in the Spokane [Washington] Press (February 13, 1909):

The twirler [pitcher], who was just waiting for this move, stepped on the rubber and without waiting for the catcher to get in his position, whipped the ball over the plate. The catcher jumped buck into his position and caught the ball, which "his umps" called a strike. Burket [the batter] was caught flat-footed and could do nothing but walk back to the bench. But what he said needs no stretch of the imagination to conceive.

From Thomas Rice, "Showing at Home Makes Fans Hope for Better Days," in the Washington [D.C.] Times (June 1, 1909):

On Saturday Milan was on third when Street was retired, via Brockett to Chase. Without hesitating the fraction of a second Chase snapped the ball to third and nailed Milan, who had naturally gone up the line a little to take advantage of any slight miscue in the handling of Street's offering The ball was delivered so quickly that Milan was caught flat-footed and a double play play resulted. That's the kind of fielding that made the "Hitless" Sox world's champions and which is holding the New York club up in the race this season when it was picked as a dead sure thing for the second division.

From "Delayed Steal Does Business," in the Tacoma [Washington] Times (June 9, 1909):

Few base ball tricks are more effective than the delayed steal, for which Gene Demontreville is given credit. Demont's plan is to get a lead off first [base], apparently waiting for a hit or bunt to advance. While apparently paying no attention, he watches the catcher closely and as the latter receives the ball from the pitcher and draws back his arm to return it, Demont starts like a flash. The catcher, caught flat-footed, has to jump out from behind the batter, draw back his arm again and wing the ball to second, while the shortstop or second baseman, who is to cover the base is also caught unprepared and the runner reaches the bag. The very daring of the steal makes it successful.

From "Vernon Loses in Error Fest," in the Los Angeles [California] Herald (September 25, 1909):

In the seventh [inning], Shinn got around [the bases] almost by himself. He landed safely on Haley's wild throw to first, was sacrificed along by Darringer, and scored on Brown's wild throw to Devereaux, who was caught flat-footed off the bag, the runner beating his throw home by twenty feet.

These four instances of being "caught flat-footed" involve, respectively, a batter, a base runner, a catcher (the person positioned behind home plate), and an infielder. In all of those instances, as in the Google Books instances involving base runners, the proper position for moving quickly is to be on one's toes.


The expression "caught flat-footed" has an unexpectedly odd and potentially complex pedigree. Two slang meanings of flat-footed—"completely committed" and "destitute"—appear to be many decades older than the slang meaning "unprepared," and yet it is not at all obvious that those earlier meanings had any bearing on the emergence of the later meaning. If anything, the "unprepared" meaning appears to be more clearly an extension of the literal meaning of flat-footed than either of the two earlier slang terms.

A further complication is the very strange breakout of the situations where the "unprepared" meaning is first recorded. We have four instances (all from the first half of 1906) in which "caught flat-footed" appears in the context of horse racing—specifically to describe a situation where a horse is unprepared to burst out of the starting gate and get off a good start. The usage is recorded in a San Francisco newspaper and three times in a New York City newspaper.

Then we have a pause of two and a half years in which no matches for "caught flat-footed" show up in newspaper database searches. And then we have a run of 38 matches from 1909 through 1912 in which every match is related to baseball. The baseball matches are recorded in newspapers from Los Angeles, California; Washington, D.C.; Honolulu, Hawaii; Bemidji, Minnesota; Missoula, Montana; New York City, New York; Bennington, Vermont; Alexandria, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; Everett, Washington; Spokane, Washington; and Tacoma, Washington. Although the number of states represented is impressive, the vast majority of the early matches come from the Pacific Coast and from the Washington, D.C./Richmond, Virginia area.

In baseball usage, "caught flat-footed" originally had the literal meaning "standing flatly on the soles of one's feet," as opposed to perching "on one's toes," ready to run at a sprint. Logically, the temporal proximity of the earliest recorded instances of "caught flat-footed" in horse racing (in 1906) to the earliest recorded instances of "caught flat-footed" in baseball (1909) suggest that the baseball usage arose from the horse racing usage. But I can find no definite evidence that this actually happened; and the literal meaning of the phrase in baseball supports the possibility that the wording arose independently in the two fields.

Baseball was a tremendously popular sport in the United States in the 1910s, and it seems likely that any slang used there would have had the opportunity to spread rapidly to other sports and to nonsports in figurative contexts. This seems to have happened with "caught flat-footed," as the 1916 match from Cosmopolitan indicates. Whether baseball usage of "caught flat-footed" in 1909–1912 is ultimately traceable to the horse-racing usage of 1906, it seems fairly clear that the nation as a whole became aware of the term through its slang use in baseball.

  • The early baseball meaning was a simple one - a runner was leading off and leaning the wrong way (or gathering wool) and got picked off. That, at least, can explain where the "caught" comes from. Boxing also has "caught flat footed", meaning getting hit in a bad stance where evasion is difficult. This goes back a long way too, and also explains "caught" but I can't find it prior to WWII. By 1917, it had become a generalized idiom- books.google.com/books/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 1:06
  • 1
    Feb 1 1910, Washington Post, page 8, uses flat-footed in a description of a James J Jeffries fight.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 1:34

I couldn't find anything from the 18th century, but I did come across uses related to horse racing that predate OED's citation at 1912. Given the perfunctory nature of the references as early as 1842, it certainly seems likely that the term was used as early as the 18th century.


Maria Carter's known good qualities, here and elsewhere, and a young filly by a son of Virginian, out of one of the best mares ever bred in the Old Dominion, gave promise for a bruising race, and expectation was on tiptoe. It were well for some had they come out flat-footed. I mean the fancy, not the fillies.

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The horses were lined up, nosing[?] the barrier, it was released, and away they went, those quickest on their feet gaining an advantage over those caught "flat-footed."

Flat-footed horse race

Needless to say, most of the earlier references to "flat footed" refer either to one being stubborn/strong-willed or to actual descriptions of people's feet.

OED cites the strong-willed definition in 1828:

a. colloq. (orig. U.S.) Downright, plain and positive; also, dead, insipid, maladroit. to come out flat-footed (for): to make a bold or positive statement of one's opinion, or the like.

1828 A. Royall Black Bk. II. 114 He was one of your right down flat-footed ox-drivers.

I'm curious whether "flat footed" has any relation to "fleet footed," which OED attests to 1726.

1726 R. Savage To Bessy, C'Tess Rochford in Misc. Poems & Transl. 283 Tho' Fate, fleet-footed, scents thy languid Son.

Of course, the term has quite an opposite definition.

Characterized by power of swift onward movement; swift, nimble. Said primarily of living beings, their limbs and movements; hence of things viewed as self-moving, thoughts, etc. Not in colloquial use.


My search turned up this, apparently from 1889. The contrast with the French idiom might be worth pursuing further.

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Americanisms, old and new; a dictionary of words, phrases and colloquialisms peculiar to the United States, British America, the West Indies, &c., their derivation, meaning and application, together with numerous anecdotal, historical, explanatory and folk-lore notes by Farmer, John Stephen, 1845?-1915?

Going back a bit further-

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A Glossary of Words & Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the U.S. By John Russell Bartlett, 1860

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