Out of Pocket and Singing in Tune

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When I heard someone on NPR say that someone “couldn’t hold a tune,” in the sense of “couldn’t carry a tune,” I assumed it was an isolated misuse of the more common expression. Then I did a Google search for “hold a tune” and got more than half a million hits. Here are a few:

Oh, my God, can she really be so oblivious to the fact that she cannot hold a tune? –Otago Daily Times (New Zealand)

Even if your child cannot hold a tune, the fact that he loves to sing and is showing an interest in music is wonderful! –LeapFrog advertising site (California company)

“But that’s terrifying me. I can’t hold a tune to save my life. God knows how I’m going to do that.” –Tom Hardy (London-born actor)

If I could hold a tune, I’d probably sing to her. –lyrics, Fly Union (American hip hop group from Ohio)

I scurried to the Ngram viewer and discovered that “hold a tune” has been making inroads since the 1960s, although it is still way below the more common expression, “to carry a tune.” Its use is more noticeable in British English than in American.

For those unfamiliar with either idiom, the meaning is “to sing on key” or “to sing in tune.”

Time will tell if the altered expression has staying power. “Hold” doesn’t work as well with the colorfully embroidered version that adds “in a bucket.” For example, “Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

out of pocket
The first time I heard the expression “out of pocket” was when I lived in England. I’d bought something to use with my English class and the headmistress reimbursed me because she didn’t want me to be “out of pocket.” In this context, an “out-of-pocket” expense is something one pays for personally. For example, one might have an expense account that covered food purchases, but wine would be an “out-of-pocket” expense.

When I returned to the United States, I was bewildered one day when the woman I was working for stopped at my desk to say that she’d be “out of pocket for about two hours” and walked out the door. As the expression was one she was fond of using, I soon figured out that by “out of pocket” she meant “unavailable, out of reach.”

In browsing for “out-of-pocket” examples, I found that, although the “unavailable” meaning is of U.S. origin and may be found in some newspapers, the financial sense dominates with American speakers, especially on the topic of health care:

After I pay $14,523, I’ll incur charges up to an out-of-pocket maximum of $12,700 for a total of $22,700.

I wouldn’t pay out of pocket for a test my doctor doesn’t think I need.

We paid out of pocket for a private nurse coordinator service in New Jersey.

I rear-ended someone–Should I pay it out of pocket or let them report it to insurance?

I went out of pocket for this treat.

A Forbes commentator on annoying business jargon notes disapprovingly, “Many auto-reply e-mails now carry the phrase: “I’m ‘out of pocket’ until next week.”

The money-related “out of pocket” dates from 1679. The earliest documentation of the “unavailable” use is in an O Henry story:

Just now she is out of pocket. And I shall find her as soon as I can. –“Buried Treasure,” 1908.

Now that I have these two uses clear, I’ve come across an example that has me bewildered all over again:

You’re talkin’ out of pocket when you told me that I’ve changed –Mac Lethal

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2 thoughts on “Out of Pocket and Singing in Tune”

  1. I had a bit of a musical past myself. When we said someone couldn’t carry a tune, the meaning was a little bit different from singing out of key (though the 2 could easily go hand in hand!). More specifically, being unable to carry a tune meant you couldn’t complete or “stick with” a melody line. Carry a tune as in a tune is a melody. Someone would start singing a melody, but at some point it would wonder off into the weeds, and yes, probably off-key as well. Kind of like a driver who keeps running off the road.

    I’ve always heard “out of pocket” meaning paying for something yourself rather than some 3rd party that might otherwise pay. The first time I heard “out of pocket” in the other context (above) was only about 12 years ago, and the context was someone being out of the office and thereby unreachable all day. It reminded me of a mouse or something that one would keep in his pocket, but let run around every now and them. I assumed it was a British expression. Guess not.

  2. I never heard “hold” a tune but it seems to be an acceptable alternative to “carry” a tune. Neither one is literal and there’s no reason I can see to prefer one over the other. In fact, it’s bad enough if you can’t carry a tune, but if you can’t even hold it, you’re in real trouble LOL.
    As far as the 3rd example for the bewildering meaning of out-of-pocket, here is what I found: meaning “way off base” or “out of control.” As I’ve gotten older and further away from understanding the new slang, I visit this website more often than I would like to admit!

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