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April 7th, 2004

Out of pocket / the plural of Jones

by Barbara Wallraff

Janet E. Griffith, of Mount Vernon, Iowa, writes, “I’m hoping you can enlighten me on the current meaning of ‘out of pocket.’ I have always understood the expression to mean ‘missing money,’ as in ‘He didn’t pay me back, and now I’m out of pocket the five dollars.’ Recently I have heard the expression used to mean ‘out of town’ or ‘out of touch,’ as in ‘I didn’t hear the news; I was out of pocket a few days.’ I can’t see any logic in this.”

Logical or not, some people have been using “out of pocket” to mean “unavailable, absent, out of place” for more than 30 years, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English. The usage originated, or at least is most common in, the South and lower Midwest. It seems to have grown out of older expressions like “living out of each other’s pockets” or “in one another’s pocket,” said of people who are on close terms or live close together. That might explain why “out of pocket,” curiously enough, always refers to people, not things. For instance, nobody says “My glasses are out of pocket”—which would be more logical—to mean the glasses are missing.
Although “out of pocket” in this sense has been around for decades and sometimes even turns up in print, no dictionary of standard American English gives any relevant definition. All the major ones agree with you that the expression is about having lost money or being broke. In these older senses, “out of pocket” goes back hundreds of years. (Here’s Congreve, from 1693: “But, egad, I’m a little out of pocket at present.”) Some current dictionaries insist that they present English the way most people use it, rather than the way somebody thinks it ought to be used. Evidently they’re behind the times in how they treat this expression.

Susan Rose, of West Bloomfield, Mich., writes, “In a recent column, you discussed the family name Rudy. But how do you sign a card from a family whose last name has an ‘s’ sound at the end? My concern is with the family name Jones.”

I’m just not going to ask why if your family name is Rose, you’re interested in signing cards as if they’re from the Joneses. I’m just not. That would be the way to sign them, though: “The Joneses.”
It’s only when you start getting into names that have two “s” sounds at the end that the correct form starts to look and sound silly. Imagine that your last name were Roses, for instance, and you wanted to sign a card from the whole family: “The Roseses.” That, too, would be correct. But it isn’t pretty—so I might suggest that if Roses were your name, you sign the card “Susan Roses and Family” instead. And if that were your name and you wanted to put up a house sign, I’d suggest it read “The Roses Family.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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