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How did this arise? Seems paradoxical.

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  • 2
    But 'outgoing' and 'going out' are not opposites, this is the part I found unusual in my post. It also seems, per some of the points below, that this might be a British/American English difference. Which if so makes it more intriguing (well, to me at least!) Aug 25 at 7:59
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    "Outgoing" is an unusually funny word. On the one hand, an outgoing person is one who is likely an extrovert. On the other hand an outgoing person is one who is leaving or retiring - and a retiring person is one who is more likely an introvert.
    – Stilez
    Aug 25 at 12:25
  • Peace out! Aug 26 at 12:51
  • Might it be that "luck out" partly matched "cash out", the difference being "cash out with luck"? Aug 26 at 20:26

3 Answers 3

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Unlike most Why? questions about English, this one actually is understandable,
since it's a metaphor.

LUCK is a troublesome concept to talk about. Lady Luck, or The Lady, is a goddess in many cults, real and fictional. She is an anthropomorphic personification of unpredictability, chance, random choice, great desire, great success, and great failure. And that image is still part of the cultural package, in every culture.

But us Western cultures don't pretend to believe in goddesses much so we use a different metaphor to account for the fact that some people succeed more obviously than others. Instead of the metaphor theme

  • LUCK is a PERSON

like the goddess who blesses us, we now use

  • LUCK is a FLUID

like the fluid that provides energy to our machines. Some people have more petrol, gas, or current than others do, just as they used to be blessed more.

So, to take up the idioms you ask about,

  • out of luck is basically the same thing as out of gas.
    The power fluid has depleted to zero.
    Too bad, so sad, nobody's fault.
  • to luck out is to win, often surprisingly or against high odds.
    There is also luck into, luck onto, and luck on, all similar.
    These are like a spouting oil well.
    Hurray, how nice, you did the right thing after all.

The key is the different constructions with out. The idiomatic predicate out of X means 'supplies of X are depleted to zero', but the phrasal verb particle out in luck out, win out, shout out, and blast out is a completive particle, usually implying extreme effort and successful completion. Out and other prepositions each have dozens of "meanings" and are used in hundreds of idiomatic constructions.

It's not the words, it's the constructions they're in.

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    But although to luck out in American English means to get / be lucky, it means the complete opposite in British English, where it's just alternative phrasing for [to be] out of luck (to be unlucky). Aug 24 at 17:15
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    Right. That's the same use of out, the completive phrasal out. Apparently UK and US idioms can be different! Whew knowed? Aug 24 at 18:05
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    If Google NGrams is to be believed, Americans are twice as likely as Brits to use to luck into [fortunate circumstances] (I'm sure we all assume the same meaning for that one). So it seems counter-intuitive to me that out and in convey "opposite" meanings to Brits in this context, but not to Americans. But when it comes to idiomatic usages, I guess the ones you grow up with are "intuitive" (others may be "weird"! :) Aug 24 at 19:19
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    It might make sense add eke out and/or edge out as similar phrases. Aug 25 at 14:23
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    I would consider it more like a resource. This is similar to "to cash out" and "out of cash" where money is a resource. You also see this in "I've spent/used up all my luck." You don't really have a flow of luck.
    – Drake P
    Aug 25 at 17:46
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The sense of out here probably is

: to completion or satisfaction as in hear me out or work the problem out (MW)

The expression is relatively recent, but, apparently, it used to convey a negative meaning:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the idiomatic phrasal verb “to luck out” as meaning “to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation.”

The OED traces the usage back to 1954, so it’s a relatively new one. The expression “luck into,” meaning “to acquire by good fortune,” came along in 1959, according to the OED.

We use a lot of prepositions idiomatically in confusing ways. Why does “drugged out” essentially mean “drugged up”? Why do we “stand down” but “mess up”? Why can we show we’re exhausted by saying “I’m all in” or “I’m all out”?

H.W. Fowler, in The King’s English, says there are so many idiomatic uses of prepositions that it would be impossible for dictionaries, grammar books, or usage guides to cite more than “the scantiest selection.” The best way to learn how to use them, he says, is “good reading with the idiomatic eye open.”

(Grammarphobia)

But note that:

According to Harper 1985, luck out was commonly used during World War I 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 hist chips.

(Languagelog.com)

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Aug 26 at 12:09
4

You could view luck out as “converting your luck from the luck bank into liquidated luck” whereas out of luck means “you have no luck stored up in your luck bank”.

This works completely analogously to cashing out

to convert (noncash assets) to cash

And more generally being out of cash/luck/quarters always means:

3 - used as a function word to indicate exclusion from or deprivation of

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