Out of Pocket and Singing in Tune
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
Browse all articles on the Expressions category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!