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”.
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.
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