Wheelhouse Rock

November 21, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

FiveThirtyEight has an nGram tool that shows the frequency of words on Reddit. The first word I tried it out on was wheelhouse.

(Click on the image for a larger view. My apologies for the faint font, 
but that’s the way FiveThirtyEight does it.)

I chose wheelhouse because it seems that this word has broken out. Literally, a wheelhouse is the enclosed place on a ship that houses the wheel.

Sometime in the 1980s, baseball players started using it to mean the area where a batter swung with maximum power.

But on a recent podcast someone said of a screenwriter that a particular kind of story was “in his wheelhouse.” I assume that Hollywood is a bellwether for trendy words and that wheelhouse has crossed over from sports to other worlds.

The FiveThirtyEight tool doesn’t tell you what the context is. Maybe these references were all in sports Reddits. Or maybe they weren’t. So I went to Lexis-Nexis, which showed the same rapid increase in recent years.

The early wheelhouses were nearly all in articles about baseball.

When Mitchell . . .asked him why he swung at a 3-0 pitch, the trainer replied, "It was right in my wheelhouse, Mitch." Contra Costa Times (California) June 8, 2000

But by 2015, about 75% of those wheelhouses were in other sections of the newspaper  – the popular arts, politics, and “Living.”

“Art and artists of any persuasion and any medium, whether it's performing artists, visual artists or poets, have always been in my wheelhouse.” (NY Times Sept. 8, 2015)

“This is a plan that is simple; that's a major reduction. I think people are going to be very happy,” Trump said in a speech at Trump Tower in New York City. “This is my wheelhouse.” (USA Today September 29, 2015)

Cocktails Are in My Wheelhouse
 By The Scenestress
(Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 5, 2015)

How do fashions spread, especially fashions in things where money is irrelevant – things like words? My impression is that sports are a popular source. People in politics, the popular arts, and business have injected game plan, curveball, track record*, playing hardball, etc., into their speech, presumably because the identification with the world of sports makes a person seem more down-to-earth and genuine, and perhaps tougher and more competitive.

Maybe someone with better computer/statistical chops than mine will scrape the databases and trace the paths of diffusion.

And with apologies to The King:

Captain threw a party at the downtown pier.
The band was playin’ loud so everyone could hear.
Now folks who don’t know anything about a ship
Are talkin’ ’bout the wheelhouse ’cause it sounds so hip,
Let’s rock
Everybody let’s rock.
Everybody up and down the dock
Was dancin’ to the wheelhouse rock.

* Track record as used by everyone today (except horseplayers) really just means record. This is far different from its meaning in sport of kings, where it originated. For more details on the misuse of track record, see this post.


Anonymous said...

Is a wheelhouse related to a "Wheel Hoss" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RnuLPWIXHk)?

Jay Livingston said...

Well, "Wheelhouse Rock" has three chords (I, IV, V) instead of just one (or technically two -- I and V ).