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shameless pleading





Luck out

Ravioli Rage on Aisle Five.

Dear Word Detective: The other day I mentioned to my wife that I had “lucked out” in finding a particular item I was looking for in a store. I then wondered about the origin of “lucked out” and “luck out.” Why is “out” tacked onto “lucked” and “luck”? — Warren I. Pollock, Glen Falls, Pennsylvania.

That’s a good question, and the answer is a bit more complicated than I first thought. Incidentally, my attempts to find any particular item in a store, especially in a grocery store, seem to face two separate but equally annoying hurdles. One is that the stores around here are routinely “out” of fairly basic things, making the trip at least partially a waste of time. The second is that determining whether the store has, for example, the particular peanut butter I want involves combing shelves that contain at least thirty-five other varieties of the stuff. A recent article in Fortune magazine, interestingly, attributed the success of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain in part to the small size of their stores and their limited selection of items in any one category. Tell me about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “luck out” as “to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation,” and dates the first appearance of the term in print to the early 1950s. That’s certainly the sense in which we use the phrase today, as synonymous with “to get lucky” (“I started making inquiries..and damned if I didn’t luck out and get steered into a good job,” J. Wambaugh, The Blue Knight, 1972). But there’s some indication that the phrase may once have meant exactly the opposite.

An entry in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (published in 1985 and written by my parents, William and Mary Morris) notes that “luck out” was used during World War II to mean “to run out of luck,” specifically to be killed or wounded in action. My parents asked the book’s usage panel of authors and editors to vote on whether they agreed that the “new” usage of “luck out” to mean “get lucky” had superseded that “old” meaning. Surprisingly (this was 1985, remember), 26% of the panel preferred the old “out of luck” usage. Novelist Anthony Burgess, for instance, opined that “‘Lucked out’ is too close to ‘out of luck’ to mean its opposite.” Mr. Burgess was, of course, slightly off the mark on that, and “luck out” meaning “out of luck” has, as far as I can tell, completely disappeared today.

If “luck out” was indeed used to mean “run out of luck” during World War II, it couldn’t have been a very popular usage, because written examples are very hard to find. The use of “out” in “luck out” actually seems to suggest the “get lucky” meaning was more common from the outset. “Luck” as a verb was commonly used by itself and with such adjuncts as “into” to mean “get lucky” during the same period, a usage still common today (“The rent was fantastically low; she had lucked into it a couple of years ago through an artist friend,” 1970). If one “lucks out,” it’s because the likelihood of success is small to begin with and failure is probable, so in “lucking out,” you’re escaping “out” of a perilous or failure-prone situation.

15 comments to Luck out

  • Thank you for your wonderful articles.

    RE: lucked out

    I believe ‘lucked out’ to be, almost certainly, a shorten form of, ‘that was a lucky outcome’. Whattayathink?

    A devoted follower, Bruce

  • Bob Duell

    So one can both “luck into” something and “luck out” at the same time? How odd!

    My thanks as well for the site, Bob

  • Topi

    How about the WWII connection with people out of luck, but not so much as to buy a farm. They usually lucked to get a ticket home.

  • Hal F.

    I think the addition of out is a formation intended to communicate a sense of finality to a particular situation. One may luck out on one exam but not necessarily on the next one. There’s a phrase I hear more and more often in the sports world these days, and it’s “win out.” It is generally used to refer to teams finishing the rest of their schedule of games with victories. For example, “If the Giants win out, they will finish in first place.” Come to think of it, probably the best example, and maybe the source of the entire construction, is “to run out.”

  • Keith Jessop

    Mate,confusion reigns,my wife and i had a bet on the meaning of lucked out.She,a big reader of american authors,insisted it meant good luck.On the other hand i insisted it meant bad luck because i grew up in the aussie bush and that has always been it’s purpose,to politely say,shit outta luck.Guess we’ll have to go halves on the restaurant bill.Thanks guys,i thought i was on a winner there but i guess i LUCKED OUT.

  • Anne

    Anyone notice how strange ‘luck’ sounds when you say, or read, it over and over?

  • Will

    I think it is different to outta luck (out of luck): ‘he went for the catch, but he was outta luck [and dropped the ball].’

    The Macquarie Dictionary gives the following definitions of ‘out':

    4. to exhaustion, extinction, or conclusion; to the end; so as to finish or exhaust or be exhausted; so as to bring to naught or render useless: to pump out a well.
    5. to or at an end or conclusion: to fight it out.

    Would one of these explain the positive aspect of ‘lucking out’?

  • Mick

    I always think “to luck out” as being fortunate- in that you have used all of your luck in that one instance hence you are how “out” of luck.

  • Kristal

    Hey Keith – I’m an Aussie from the bush too and to ‘luck out’ for me (and everyone I know) means to have no luck. I was surprised the other day to come across it in an American book, and then hear it again on an American TV show, where it meant ‘to get lucky’. I was scratching my head I can tell you!

  • Michael Caramanis

    The last explanation given in the commentary seems very convincing to me. When there is a set of people who are in the majority of those who suffer the common consequences of a difficult/perilous situation, you are lucky if you happen to be so lucky as to be “out” of that set, and hence “luck out” of the set of unfortunate people. The operative concept here is that “chances are to be unlucky and suffer”, so for example when more than a million households in New Jersey went with out power in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, those who did not lose power “lucked out” of the almost normal situation — normal in the sence of most likely or frequent — of losing power.

  • John Mathers

    Since “lucked out” is ambiguous, why use it? You can argue its mean equally in both directions, and it isn’t universally understood. The terms “out of luck” or “in luck”, however, do seem universally understood, so they would appear to be more satisfactory.

  • Judy Miller

    I agree with Bruce Cunningham. The “out” in “Lucked Out” refers to the “outcome”, just as it does in “worked out”, “smoothed out”, “turned out”, “played out. There are likely a few other examples out there…another…”freaked out” just came to mind.

  • lucky

    I too am an Aussie and we grew up in the bush with “luck out” meaning “out of luck” (as in – I went to the shop and they had run out of milk so I lucked out). I always understood it to be that the luck held in the upturned horseshoe (placed over the door in a house) had been tipped out thus out of luck. My spouse is American and he and his family grew up with lucked out meaning lucky – and this has been a source of confusion when communicating. So it appears to be an Aussie thing versus elsewhere.

  • kara thrace

    There is a reconciliation possible for the supposed usage in WWII, which is “Thems that die’ll be the lucky ones.” from RLS

  • kara thrace

    If you got wounded, you got sent home, so also lucky, assuming it wasn’t a missing limb(s) situation or PTSD

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