Luck out

Ravioli Rage on Aisle Five.

Dear Word Detective: The other day I mentioned to my wife that I had “lucked out” in finding a particular item I was looking for in a store. I then wondered about the origin of “lucked out” and “luck out.” Why is “out” tacked onto “lucked” and “luck”? — Warren I. Pollock, Glen Falls, Pennsylvania.

That’s a good question, and the answer is a bit more complicated than I first thought. Incidentally, my attempts to find any particular item in a store, especially in a grocery store, seem to face two separate but equally annoying hurdles. One is that the stores around here are routinely “out” of fairly basic things, making the trip at least partially a waste of time. The second is that determining whether the store has, for example, the particular peanut butter I want involves combing shelves that contain at least thirty-five other varieties of the stuff. A recent article in Fortune magazine, interestingly, attributed the success of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain in part to the small size of their stores and their limited selection of items in any one category. Tell me about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “luck out” as “to achieve success or advantage by good luck in a difficult, testing, or dangerous situation,” and dates the first appearance of the term in print to the early 1950s. That’s certainly the sense in which we use the phrase today, as synonymous with “to get lucky” (“I started making inquiries..and damned if I didn’t luck out and get steered into a good job,” J. Wambaugh, The Blue Knight, 1972). But there’s some indication that the phrase may once have meant exactly the opposite.

An entry in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (published in 1985 and written by my parents, William and Mary Morris) notes that “luck out” was used during World War II to mean “to run out of luck,” specifically to be killed or wounded in action. My parents asked the book’s usage panel of authors and editors to vote on whether they agreed that the “new” usage of “luck out” to mean “get lucky” had superseded that “old” meaning. Surprisingly (this was 1985, remember), 26% of the panel preferred the old “out of luck” usage. Novelist Anthony Burgess, for instance, opined that “‘Lucked out’ is too close to ‘out of luck’ to mean its opposite.” Mr. Burgess was, of course, slightly off the mark on that, and “luck out” meaning “out of luck” has, as far as I can tell, completely disappeared today.

If “luck out” was indeed used to mean “run out of luck” during World War II, it couldn’t have been a very popular usage, because written examples are very hard to find. The use of “out” in “luck out” actually seems to suggest the “get lucky” meaning was more common from the outset. “Luck” as a verb was commonly used by itself and with such adjuncts as “into” to mean “get lucky” during the same period, a usage still common today (“The rent was fantastically low; she had lucked into it a couple of years ago through an artist friend,” 1970). If one “lucks out,” it’s because the likelihood of success is small to begin with and failure is probable, so in “lucking out,” you’re escaping “out” of a perilous or failure-prone situation.

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