I recently overheard the phrase, "call an audible" and mentally likened it to, "play it by ear." But when I went to look it up, I discovered that the general consensus is that the former hails from (American) football, whereas the latter takes its cue from music.

Surely two such similar phrases have common etymology! Alas, I cannot find any evidence of it on the Internet. Does anyone here?

  • 7
    I don't think the two are related--not every hearing-related phrase shares an etymology
    – simchona
    Aug 25 '11 at 13:20

Nope, not related.

"Call an audible" is a term from American Football. It refers to the Quarterback changing the play at the last minute based on how he sees the defense lining up. He will call out the play change vocally to his team-mates while they are already lined up for the play. So it might be used to mean "make a change at the last minute based on the circumstance."

"Play it by ear" is a musical phrase that contrasts against reading from sheet music, so might be used where there is no plan, just acting based on the dynamics of the situation.

But they are used in similar situations when used colloquially. Another synonyms would be "fly by the seat of your pants"

  • 2
    +1 'Nuff said, really. Not only not related, but I doubt many people (OP excepted) would even be reminded of one when hearing the other. Aug 25 '11 at 13:27
  • 3
    +1, but I'm editing this to make it clear that it is a reference to American Football. Quite a lot of our readers aren't from the USA, and thus aren't intimately familiar with the sport like we are (hence kojiro's confusion).
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 25 '11 at 13:46
  • On the contrary, @FumbleFingers, all 3 of Brad's examples are very much synonymous to me though clearly they don't share etymology. Dec 18 '18 at 23:23
  • 3
    @T.E.D. Glad you said that, I'm British and not only recognise "play by ear" and "fly by the seat of your pants" but use them occasionally. However I've never heard "call an audible" used in any context. Without the explanation it was nonsensical to me.
    – BoldBen
    Dec 18 '18 at 23:52
  • 1
    I think the information that is missing is that football often uses "set patterns". So we're going to do a 53 or a 7B or a reverse 11. An audible would not choose a pattern but would be "I will pass to Steve who will run left and you will all support him" or something. Changing everyone's plans to something that was not thought of before, but is a plan. Dec 19 '18 at 13:59

I agree with those on the historical sources of these, but I'm surprised the idea that they are the same. I actually would say the nuance of the two phrases is a bit different and would indicate 2 different sources. When you “call an audible “ the following is implied, 1) there was an existing plan 2) it became obvious this plan was a distinctly worse option than the new plan.

Playing it by ear does not have that connotation.

In other words, the following works only with calling an audible. “We can book the 2 star hotel, but I know you’ll take one look and Call an Audible.”
Meaning you will find it unacceptable.

In contrast, if you were playing it by ear with the 2-star it could be just because you weren’t really planning, ie it was more about having no plan.


It most likely meant to change plans. Gary; I thought we were listening to a lecture? Alan: I'm calling an audible, we are going to read from the book instead.


Heard recently at the Breeders Cup races at Keeneland Race Course. A trainer had not chosen one of the BC races for one of the horses in her barn. Because the horse's next race was a resounding victory, she "called an audible" and changed her game plans, sending the horse to the Breeders Cup. (by the way, it lost.)

  • Welcome to EL&U. While a relevant anecdote, I'm afraid this doesn't constitute an answer to the question, or add much to what has previously been mentioned. This kind of contribution is best made as a comment - stick around and you'll soon collect the reputation points required to comment on any post.
    – JHCL
    Nov 1 '15 at 22:16

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