Q&A: “In the box seat”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have bums on seats…

Q: Hey AWC, I was speaking to a friend in America about them being “in the box seat” for a promotion. They didn’t understand what I meant.

A: Yeah, that’s probably true.

Q: Why? Isn’t it a common phrase?

A: In Australia, New Zealand and England, yes. America, not so much.

Q: Wow, really?

A: Yes. The term “in the box seat” means to be in an advantageous or favourable position. Often it’s seen in sports, such as with a team leading by a lot of points; they’re in the box seat to win the match. 

Q: Or my friend who was a sure thing to get a promotion?

A: Exactly. But it’s not an American thing.

Q: It sounds like it would be!

A: True, but no. Do you know where it actually came from?

Q: I’m guessing it’s from the theatre – those box seats give you the best, most favourable position to view the play.

A: Just ask Abraham Lincoln, right? 

Q: Sorry?

A: He was certainly in the box seat to be shot that night.

Q: Hmmmm, maybe that’s why Americans don’t like using it.

A: Well actually it has NOTHING to do with box seats in theatres or similar. It instead came from England and referred to the high seat that the driver of a horse and carriage would sit upon. This ‘box seat’ gave him the best view ahead. It was, quite literally, the best position to be in.

Q: So when did the literal box seat become a figurative one?

A: During the 19th century, the phrase “in the box seat” came to mean what it does today, but only in England and colonies such as Australia or New Zealand.

Q: Is it related to being “in the driver’s seat”?

A: It’s similar. However, where “box seat” relates to an advantageous position, “driver’s seat” is more about influence or control. For example: “With the new boss in the driver’s seat, the company can finally change direction”. To be “in the saddle” is an earlier version of the same thing.

Q: And “the hot seat”?

A: That’s something quite different altogether – the exact opposite of being in the box seat. Originating in the 1930s, it was slang for the electric chair. So, needless to say, being in the “hot seat” was not a place you wanted to be. Nowadays, it’s figurative use is not so lethal, but still implies some peril.

Q: Shocking!

A: Quite.

Q: So if being “in the box seat” is not American, do they have anything similar to describe “sitting pretty” in a situation.

A: You mean besides “sitting pretty”?

Q: Um, yes.

A: Well as it turns out, they do have a phrase – one that most people outside of America have probably never heard of. “Sitting in the catbird seat.”

Q: I’m sorry, what? The catbird seat?

A: That’s right.

Q: I’m confused.

A: It was a phrase that also originated in the 19th century – this time in the American South. A catbird is simply a type of bird with a cat-like call, and it enjoys sitting high in the tree. To be “sitting in the catbird seat” is to be in an advantageous position – identical in meaning to “box seat”.

Q: I have literally never heard of that before today.

A: It didn’t become popular until the 1940s, thanks to a book by James Thurber called The Catbird Seat and baseball commentator Red Barber, who was fond of using it to describe a batter who had “three balls and no strikes” – i.e. in a favourable position. It’s still used today and not just in sport. For example, “Your fluency in Japanese should put you in the catbird seat for getting the Tokyo posting.”

Q: So I should have told my friend they were in a catbird seat, not a box seat?

A: Precisely!

Q: I think I need to have a sit down after all this.

A: Here, sit on this box…


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