Lucky Expressions

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Emma requests a post on the expression “lucked out”:

The … times I’ve heard people using [‘lucked out’] to mean “you’re out of luck” as opposed to expressing good luck or fortune is bordering on ridiculous.

The expression to luck out is an American coinage dating from 1954. It means “to succeed through luck.” Specifically, according to the OED, it is to succeed “in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation.” For example: He really lucked out on that exam; every question he had studied for was on it.

The expression to be out of luck means “to be unfortunate.” For example: You’re out of luck: the last train has left the station.

Two other uses of luck as a verb are:

to luck into: to acquire by good fortune, without effort on one’s part. Example: He lucked into a sweet deal on that car.

to luck upon: to meet with, to find. Example: He lucked upon some old clothes he had wanted to give away…

The noun luck entered English in the 15th century from a Dutch word meaning “happiness” or “good fortune.” It’s related to German Glück, “fortune, good luck.”

The multiplicity of expressions with the word “luck,” incorporate associations with Chance and Fortune in the sense of the powers that arrange the uncertain fates of human beings.

One can have good luck, bad luck, or ill luck. My father used the expression If he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.

People say that it’s good luck to find a four-leaf clover, but bad luck to break a mirror.

Some people are said to have good luck, meaning that they are generally fortunate, while some are said to have no luck, meaning that they are generally unfortunate.

Here are just a few more of the many expressions that employ the noun luck:

Good luck! –said to someone setting off to some uncertain undertaking like an exam or an audition.
Better luck next time! –said to someone who has failed to achieve some goal.
Just my luck! –said by someone who has missed out on something desired.
To be down on one’s luck –to be in straitened circumstances, for example, jobless.
Luck of the Irish –a contradictory expression that can mean either “bad luck,” or “extraordinary good luck,” depending on the context.
The Best of British luck –usually meant ironically, the way Americans might say Good luck with that. The sense is “go ahead and try, but you’re probably not going to succeed.”
Trust to luck –undertake a difficult task with insufficient preparation, hoping that all will go well.

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9 Responses to “Lucky Expressions”

  • Alysa Nevin

    I just received this post on “Lucky expressions” tonight from my subscription and wanted to let you know that it is incomplete. Although you discuss the American usage of “lucked out” – much of what your reader has seen (using “lucked out” to be equivalent to “you’re out of luck”) may have been written by Australians or New Zealanders. In fact, this is one of the (few) culture shocks that awaited us when we moved from Australia to America for further study. For Australians, “lucked out” will always be a negative thing! Hope that you will update your piece to reflect this – I really do enjoy reading it and you usually are very good at including English usage from the whole of the English speaking world 🙂

  • Frank Elliott

    And to the list at the end, let’s add the expression that I believe Brits are fond of, and which has made its way to America via soccer: “Unlucky!”

    It’s usually expressed as a condolence when one fails at a difficult task.

    I was reminded of it at Boy Scout camp last week with my son. I fell off the climbing wall and a Scout from England, over here on exchange, immediatety came out with “Oh, unlucky!” Hearing this immediately took me back to my days coaching soccer 10 years ago, when I heard coaches from England use it frequently.

  • Maeve Maddox

    @Frank,
    The editing fairy has granted your wish. Kind of.

    🙂

  • Jeff B.

    For Australians, “lucked out” will always be a negative thing!

    Must be an Australian thing. I’m from NZ; I’ve only ever heard “lucked out” as “had good luck”.

  • Marilyn Collins

    Daily Writing Tips brings not only knowledge, but fun to our language. Great article on LUCK.

  • Andy Knoedler

    “My father used the expression If he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.”

    Here’s that expression from the song “Born under a Bad Sign” by Booker T. Jones and William Bell and recorded first by Albert King and later by Cream: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

    Or from the song “If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck” by Ray Charles:

    That’s why I say if everybody went to heaven
    Hey-ey-ey, I believe I’d miss the call
    But you see if it wasn’t for bad luck,
    Trying to tell you son if it wasn’t for bad luck, now now
    Oh, oh, I wouldn’t have no luck at all
    Would you believe I wouldn’t have no luck at all

    Whoever’s version you groove to, it’s a wonderfully expressed sentiment.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Maeve, you didn’t address “lucky charm”, “lucky stars”, “lady luck”, “luck with with [him/her]”. I’ll forgive you for not addressing a peculiar (and undoubtedly cultural) idiom I’ve heard and used many times, “That guy couldn’t get lucky in a [house of ill repute — original term sounded somewhat like “warehouse”] with a pocket fulla c-notes.” This related to a man who seemed cursed with vile fortunes such that he couldn’t succeed no matter what.

    As always, Maeve, your post was excellent.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Pardon me — I meant “luck WAS with [him/her]”.

  • Lupita Villalvazo

    Regarding my last post:

    On Spanish the PERFECT TRANSLATION FOR “LUCK” IS

    DICHA —– DICHOSA for her as a lucky lady
    DICHOSO for him as a lucky man

    Yo Soy Dichosa de Vivir la Sabiduría de HAY HOUSE!

    I Am Lucky from Living The Wisdom of HAY HOUSE!

    I AM LUCKY!
    YO SOY DICHOSA!

    Gracias 🙂
    Lupita

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