ribbon bar


Subject: Out of Pocket, Redux

Dear Brother Grady,

For no apparent reason, my brain suddenly surfaced. Amidst the general shock, I remembered the origin of the term, "out of pocket," to refer to a person who is vacationing or otherwise incommunicado. Earlier, someone on the Philalethes Society list used to term when explaining an absence from the list, and another list member asked for a definition of the term.

I was there, more or less, when the term was coined. Here is what happened:

First, we begin with corporate and military travellers, who must use a term for a type of travel expenses. The idea of travel is important and appears later as a source of confusion. "Out of pocket" originally referred only to "out-of-pocket expenses." As all will remember, these are expenses that are paid with cash or personal credit, rather than charged to an employer's account, and with hopes of reimbursment by an employer. Example: "These are my actual, out-of-pocket expenses as opposed to my per diem and travel allowance."

Next, the term "out of the loop" came into general corporate and military use in the late 1960s and early 1970s to refer to a person who is uninformed either purposefully or accidentally. Example: "Let's keep him out of the loop on this plan so that he won't be able to tell his boss about our new project." And "Why the h--- was I left out of the loop on this?!!!!" "In the loop" meant being included in planning an activity; and "out of the loop" meant the opposite.

"Out of the loop" began to be used to mean anyone who is uninformed and often by a person about himself to explain ignorance. Example: "I have been out of the loop for the past two weeks because I have been on vacation." From here, "out of the loop" began to mean out of town or on vacation.

Here is where things get tricky. Anyone who has been in the government or military knows that leaders at all levels tend to misspeak themselves, often with disasterous results. But also these mistakes can be merely ignorant or foolish. Also, when the mistake is made by someone in high office, it tends to be perpetuated. Example: President Warren G. Harding, with his usual willful ignorance, referred to the post-WWI US as returning to "normalcy" rather than normality.

About 1975, the term "out-of-pocket" began to be used to mean "out of the loop" by ignorant US Army officers who wanted to appear that they understood and used the corporate jargon term, "out of the loop." They latched onto this term so as not to embarrass their superiors who had also misused the term and the misuse spread like wildfire.

Why did this happen? You see, Army officers were used to the term "out-of-pocket expenses" because of the detailed expense forms that they were required to fill out every time they travelled. These expense forms had a column marked "Out of Pocket Expenses."

The idea of travel becomes important again at this point because it is a source of the confusion. As mentioned above, when executives travel, no matter how hard they try to stay informed, they are often "out of the loop" when they are out of town. In 1975, the Vietnam War had just ended; and Army generals, who wanted to be corporate executives when they retired, began to use corporate jargon and wanted to refer to themselves as "out of the loop" when they were out of town. However, using the tried and true government and military tradition, Army generals screwed it up and used one travel term, "out-of-pocket," to mean another travel term, "out of the loop." And over the next 30 years, it stuck and spread from there because in the military, one does not correct the generals; one copies them.

By 1975, I was a second lieutenant just up from the ranks (where I started out as a buck private eight years, two college degrees and one war previously), and my first assignment as an officer was in research and development. I saw and worked with colonels and generals every day. I had become "close to the flagpole" and was "on track" to be "a rising star." And I might have been a general, myself, by now if I had not said, "Uh, General, you really mean out-of-the-loop not out-of-pocket, don't you?"

So, when a member of this list refers to himself as being "out of pocket" during his vacation, in the finest traditions of military and government service, he really means "out of the loop."

Bro J. R. (Lt. Col. Ret.)

a pod of whales, a shrewdness of apes, a lawfirm of weasels, a descent of woodpeckers, a murder of crows, a congress of baboons, a lodge of freemasons

copyright©1998 J. R. Martin, all rights reserved

Back to The War Stories Homepage?



ribbon bar