Q&A: The origin of “in your wheelhouse”

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 are behind the wheel..

Q: Hi AWC, would you agree that the origin of words and phrases is something that is ‘in your wheelhouse’?

A: Yes, that seems fair.

Q: Aha! So then, WHAT is this wheelhouse? Does it have wheels in it? Is it even a house?

A: Good question. You are of course referring to the figurative term – “In one’s wheelhouse”, also less commonly without the “in” (i.e. “that’s her wheelhouse”). It’s what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines as “an area that matches a person's skills or expertise”.

Q: Exactly!

A: The original wheelhouse however is one that you’d find on a boat. Sometimes also known as the pilot house, it’s an enclosed place on a vessel for the steering gear and the pilot.

Q: Sure, a little house for the steering wheel. But how did we get from there to here?

A: The idea of a literal wheelhouse seems to have arrived in the steamboat era of the 1830s – the kind of space on a boat depicted in the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie.

Q: Okay, so steering a boat was literally in someone’s wheelhouse. 

A: That’s right, it’s the room where it happens.

Q: So when did the phrase “jump ship”, as it were?

A: First, it took a sideways step into things like mills that also used big water wheels for their steam operations. Wheelhouses became commonplace in these from the late 19th century.

Q: Okay, so we’re still in the literal space – a house for a wheel. At some point it became figurative, right?

A: You’re right. And we can blame the Americans on that one. More specifically, baseball in the 1950s.

Q: So we’ve gone from Mickey Mouse to Mickey Mantle?

A: Haha, very clever – so we have. It was during his heyday in the late 1950s that baseball announcers began talking about a hitter’s “wheelhouse” – relating to the arc in which they could swing and hit (or wheel) the ball. Who knows, perhaps it was Mantle they were referring to!

Q: Not sure he can assume such a mantle. But he was quite the power hitter.

A: Anyway, the Oxford English Dictionary defined this new “wheelhouse” as “the area of the strike zone where a particular batter is able to hit the ball most forcefully or successfully.” This was later dubbed the “power zone”.

Q: That does sound very American. “Tonight’s Power Zone is brought to you by Cheerios – the only wheels YOU need for your house!”

A: Haha. Well, it was also America in the 1980s where it appeared to make another leap – this time off the baseball field and into everyday life. Suddenly, something in your wheelhouse was “the field in which a person excels; one’s strongest interest or ability”.

Q: Yeah, that sounds more familiar. So it was North American only?

A: Initially yes, but in the age of the internet, the term has become more widespread throughout the 21st century – beyond America. For example, “Teaching people to write is in AWC’s wheelhouse.”

Q: Do you have an example with another Mickey in it?

A: Sure. “Acting roles that also include boxing are in Mickey Rourke’s wheelhouse.” 

Q: Nice. So to recap, a baseball hitter’s physical area where they perform best has now become anyone’s general area of expertise – where THEY perform best?

A: That’s a good way of thinking about it. 

Q: And it’s not related to the original boat definition? Or Mickey Mouse?

A: Not unless you’re a sailor who works for Disney. Words go through natural evolutions, and while “wheelhouses” can still be found on boats, they also found a whole new meaning via baseball – likely invented by a clever American sportscaster 70 years ago. 

Q: Thanks for the explanation. Now, I need to get back to inventing a car that doesn’t have any wheels. 

A: No wheels??

Q: Yep! I’ve been working on it tirelessly. Bahahahaaaa.

A: …

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