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're hunting for fields of four-leaf clovers…
Q: Hi AWC – I was celebrating St Patrick’s Day last week, and had a thought.
A: Was it the one where you thought all rainbows ended in a leprechaun named Paddy O'Gold?
Q: Hey that was a simple mistake. But no. It was a thought about luck.
A: Ah, the luck of the Irish.
Q: That’s right. Four leafed clover and pots of gold at the end of rainbows.
A: It’s officially “four-leaf clover”. But anyway, your question?
Q: It’s about the phrase “lucked out”. For example, today my uncle was talking about my cousin’s new husband and said that “she really lucked out when she married him”… I thought it was a bad thing, but he was smiling proudly!
A: Ah yes, this phrase is a troublesome one. Depending on where you’re from, it could mean that your cousin either married a George Clooney or a looney.
Q: Yes, well I’m thinking looney – because to “luck out” means to be out of luck, surely? To be unlucky, right?
A: Well, no. Any North American reading this right now will think otherwise. In that part of the world, to “luck out” is a very good thing indeed.
Q: Oh for luck’s sake. English strikes again…
A: Indeed. The word “luck” has been around for six centuries, but it wasn’t until 1938 that we got the phrase “lucky break” (many attributing this to gambling). The subsequent first appearance of “luck out” in print was in the US in 1954.
A: In that case, to “luck out” meant to succeed through good luck, or simply to have good luck.
Q: Case closed then. She married a George Clooney.
A: Not so fast. Curiously, in Britain and Australia, to “luck out” has come to mean the complete opposite – to have bad luck.
Q: So it’s a looney then?
A: Well actually, if you look up the Macquarie Dictionary, while the bad luck one is listed first, both good and bad luck versions are listed alongside each other as accepted variations.
Q: Oh no! So how can I tell?
A: Without any more information, you probably can’t. Adding to the confusion is that the influence of American English is widespread, so that there’s now a frothy mix of people in Australia who have different opinions on what it means to “luck out”.
Q: So do I avoid using “luck out” entirely in my writing?
A: Well, that’s the safest way. Each can be replaced with “got lucky” or “was unlucky” simply enough. However, it’s all about knowing your audience. If that audience (or character) is American, you’d be safe to load it up with four-leaf clover and pots of gold. Or if your writing takes away the ambiguity by adding additional context, you’re probably safe.
A: “After a week of rain, Fiona and Greg lucked out with a sunny day for their wedding.” (However, American readers will always be confused if you use it in a bad luck way.)
Q: Any other comments?
A: Look for context. It’s usually there. Your uncle was smiling, so his new son-in-law is probably a George Clooney-type and he meant it in the American sense. Curiously, “the luck of the Irish” can also mean both good luck OR a mix of good and bad luck.
Q: I think we really lucked out with this topic…
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!