Thursday, February 21, 2008

On deck: wheelhouse

A while back I wrote that I disagreed with a professor's argument. I didn't make all my points as clearly as I could. However a friend was kind enough to suggest that the professor's point was doomed from the beginning because he had picked a topic that was in my "wheelhouse."

I hadn't heard the phrase "in your wheelhouse" before that. The context and our shared knowledge made it clear that my friend meant that the topic was a favourite or a familiar one -- and I was therefore adept at arguing my point.

I looked in several dictionaries to find out more about this word/phrase.

Random House: PILOTHOUSE

American Heritage: See pilothouse.

Merriam-Webster: pilothouse

WordNet (Princeton): an enclosed compartment from which a vessel can be navigated [syn: pilothouse]

Websters New World: PILOTHOUSE [also tags the entry as an Americanism.]

Webster's Deluxe Unabridged: a shelter built over the steering wheel of a ship; a pilothouse.

Funk and Wagnall's: 1 A small house on the deck of a vessel in which the steering wheel is located; a pilothouse. 2 A paddle box.

Thank goodness the OED doesn't worry about saving space and giving only the essentials. So the entry there is predictably more informative than the rest.

OED: 1. A structure enclosing a large wheel, e.g. a water-wheel; spec. a house or superstructure containing the steering-wheel, a pilot-house; also, the paddle-box of a steam-boat.

2. a. A building in which cart-wheels are stored.

3. Archæol. A circular stone dwelling of the late Iron Age of a type widespread in northern and western Scotland, having partition walls radiating from the centre.

The various definitions of pilothouse are not so various. All indicate a room housing the wheel used to steer a ship or boat.

And none of these gives me a good answer regarding my friend's use of the term. So I search for wheelhouse on Google™ and the first hit is an entry at the The Phrase Finder. Telling me that this is used in baseball to indicate that area (usually in the strike zone) that makes a pitch easy to hit. The page includes a citation from James Carville with Jeff Nussbaum's Had Enough: A Handbook for Fighting Back: "[W]e're going to take it into this administration's supposed wheelhouse."

It also provides an address to a baseball jargon page but that link has changed and is now a useless matrix of circular advertising.

So we go elsewhere. Over to the Urban Dictionary where we get an entry for wheelhouse with several definitions. The first is provided by Reimer Cunningham who defines the word as an "area of expertise, a particular skill". An illustrative quote is included: as an alcoholic, a beer drinking contest is right in my wheelhouse. This definition has received 62 positive votes and 3 negative.

The second definition gives a little more information claiming the term refers to that area within a batter's range to makes good contact easiest. This definition also provides two examples of use. There is an ambiguous attribution on each use but it's not clear if these are actual quotes. This definition has received 49 positive votes and 2 negative.


The Wiktionary entry for wheelhouse is simple -- but it gives 3 definitions:
1. (nautical) An enclosed compartment, on the deck of a vessel such as a fishing boat, from which it may be navigated; on a larger vessel it is the bridge or pilothouse
2. (nautical) The enclosed structure around side paddlewheels on a steamboat.
3. (baseball) A batter's power zone

The reach of wheelhouse has extended from its use in sports to the more general sense of skill. Much like to hit it out of the park can mean to have any success or to perform an impressive display of ability.

But I'm still curious about the move from the nautical into the baseball.

A third definition in the Urban Dictionary makes the following guess:
Anything that can be acted on with confident success.
I'm guessing it originates from the fact that a wheelhouse is the room on the bridge of a ship where you steer from, providing you with clear view & control to steer the situation.

I'll disagree. It makes sense to look past the pilothouse meaning. Consider instead the paddlewheel enclosure extending into the baseball sense. As a wheel swings easily on a point or axle any object that enters that box is in danger of being smacked silly. Imagine the damage done to any object that gets caught in that wheelhouse. It only had to happen a few times before the wheelhouse was known as a dangerous spot.

* * *

As often as Jesse, Graeme, Erin, Ben et al decide to include a new definition in their impressive tomes the words and meanings pop up and shift too quickly. They're playing catch-up because it's impossible not to. The best dictionary editors can't predict which word will come into the language. And new definitions are tried and tested by the churning cultures of the roiling masses. Good luck with that forecast.

The best dictionaries are not too slow to reflect language change. They're just careful. And every metaphorical use isn't worth mentioning. No matter how beautiful or effective or striking. Should a dictionary tell us that a poem out there defines Petals (on a wet, black bough) as human faces on a Paris Subway? It's not a dictionary's job to tell us everything that has been done with a word. So this is a good reminder that a dictionary is a still shot of a moving object. And not every twitch and flutter needs to be documented.

This is less and less troubling these days because of our ongoing self-documenting language technology. Google™ is an impressive lexical tool. Type in your term and you can find millions of of instances of its use which give a good image of how a word is understood. And sometimes Google™ anticipates well that you're looking for just that information. The first hit is often a definition.

And Sites like Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers and The Phrase Finder are more likely to report recent development. The compromise of such responsiveness is well discussed.

The greatest strength of a carefully compiled dictionary is the depth that a work like the OED obviously values. Few of the contributors to UrbanWiktionAnswers will stick with a word long enough for a full investigation. Even when the work is carefully done and attested these lexicographical dilettantes tend to move on to the next word before a full history has been uncovered. Those who snort around a word like a truffle pig are precious. And they tend to devote their work to the service of those dictionaries that value accuracy and depth more than quickness and breadth.

But this wheelhouse phrase isn't too obscure is it? It's not hard to find the meaning and especially in baseball jargon it must be pretty well known. How does this it fare on number of Google™ hits?

in my wheelhouse    - 6,640
in his wheelhouse - 5,020
in your wheelhouse - 2,500
in their wheelhouse - 1,280
in our wheelhouse - 1,200
in her wheelhouse - 1,020

Searching for 'in the wheelhouse' brings up mostly boat references. Going with the pronouns weeds out a lot of those. Tho using "her" pulls up a lot that refer to the earlier meanings - "she" being the boat/ship.

It's not huge. But open it up with a wildcard and narrow it back down by adding "right in" and we find that "right in * wheelhouse" gives us 20,300 hits. A few of the hits on the first page are references to the phrase. The rest look like a relevant use. Three of them refer to baseball. The following pages show a good mix of relevant uses regarding sports, music, dancing, automotive engineering, comedy, politics...

All evidence that the phrase has a firm footing.

And there's this post by someone else who wonders about the phrase. A commenter (going by emetic sage)suggests that the phrase works because of the central location of the wheelhouse on a boat. But wheelhouses aren't characterized by their central location nor are they a paragon of a centrality. I still like my paddle box idea.



  1. Huh. That phrase is so familiar to my that I never even wondered about its origin. I agree more with your notion: it has to do with being where the batter's swing is strongest, where the ball is in the most danger of being walloped out of the park. I always sort of thought about it (but not enough to try looking it up) as coming from the way the bat wheels around through the strike zone.

  2. Other topics in Michael's wheelhouse:

    1.) "I was listening to NPR today..."

    2.) Somebody corrected somebody else's Enlgish, and now I'm correcting them.

    3.) "Buffy, does this color toenail polish go with my eyes?"

  3. I found this entry because *I* was looking for the origin of the phrase after hearing it used on Glee. I'd heard it many times before as a singer -- "This song is in your wheelhouse" -- but today it struck me as odd, "Why do we say that?" So, I went searching for it and your entry popped up.

    So, there's another addition for you, almost 2 years later. Singers say "in your (or my) wheelhouse" when we mean that a song is right in our range, something that we'll easily "knock out of the park." LOL

  4. I've often disgustedly muttered "right in my wheelhouse," when (in tennis) misplaying a "can of corn," (another baseball expression, where does that come from?) service return. A few weeks ago a fellow player questioned me as to the phrase's meaning and origin. I didn't know of course, and had never really thought about it. We all pondered for awhile, inconclusively. So... I volunteered to investigate. At long last, here I am. I like the paddle wheel. It makes sense and feels right. I think this'll be as good as it's gonna get. We're approaching the wheelhouse's wheelhouse.

  5. I wonder whether the baseball term doesn't originally come from nautical references?

    shows nothing much before 1850. Some of the earliest mentions:

    Red river (1871):

    "As might be gathered from the description of American river boats already given, the pilot of such has the most enviable position on board during the warm weather. Secure in his wheelhouse - a comfortable box in which he is protected from the sun's rays, and elevated above the saloon - he can see from his lofty position the obstacles to navigation far ahead and around the vessel. He is quite alone in the possession of these advantages, for, should any passenger attempt to get near him, he would soon be dislodged by the sun's heat and the sparks continually falling from the funnel, while there is no admittance to the wheel-house itself."

    From 1911: (also in a nautical setting)

    "...glanced along his side and past his wheelhouse without inflicting any very serious damage."

    From 1919:

    "On his return the pilot went to sleep in his wheelhouse."

    It's also used to refer to the room with the ship's wheel (tiller) today. From the report on the Exxon Valdez spill:

    "After passing through Valdez Narrows, pilot Murphy left the vessel and Captain Hazelwood took over the wheelhouse."

    All the way up to 1950, still only nautical references, all talking about the place where a ship is controlled:,cdr:1,cd_min:1920,cd_max:1940,lr:lang_1en&ei=ugcPTfjKNY-p8QO7kL2CBw&start=0&sa=N,cdr:1,cd_min:1940,cd_max:1950,lr:lang_1en&ei=_wcPTduDLtLA8QPJr6WEBw&start=10&sa=N

    In 1957, you start seeing it being used to indicate a "zone of influence:

    and only in 1960, does the baseball term start being used, as far as I can tell:

    and even then it needs to be explained:

    "When the hitter sees the pitch coming into his "wheelhouse" — where he hits the ball best ..."

    At the same time, it seems to be used metaphorically in the same sense as "stuck to his guns": "Other outfits tried to break Elving with price-cutting, but he stuck to his wheelhouse." in "Westways"

    Even into the 90s it's almost universally a nautical term used in the sense of "the place in the ship where the wheel is".,cdr:1,cd_min:1981,cd_max:1990,lr:lang_1en&ei=mwoPTbbYCI-s8QParJT-Bg&start=0&sa=N

    So, to sum up: A wheelhouse is a place of command and control, a place of security and a zone of influence.

  6. thank you for your careful and thorough commentary david. you do make a strong case for the "control room" origin. it seems the term as used in baseball does intend to reference the ease and control with which a pitch is hit.

    i mentioned the origin from the paddlewheel enclosure because of my sense that the issue of power is also a big part of the expression.

  7. My take is: I found that a wheel house is the part of a water mill that houses the wheel, which gathers the water, and by extension, where all the power is generated from. I think that fits with not only the baseball description (or tennis) of the ball being placed in a location where the hitter can use his power to the best of his ability, but also your school arguement, as in the area whish you are the strongest.

  8. I think it makes sense because everything the captain needs to pilot the boat is always within his reach..,.


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