Posted by: Dutch | December 14, 2009

Behind the 8 ball

Meaning

A difficult position from which it is unlikely one can escape.

Origin

From the Eight Ball version of the game of billiards, which is played on a pool table. The balls are numbered and must be potted in order. The game is forfeited if a player’s cue ball hits the (black) eight ball first. A ‘behind the eight ball’ position leaves a player in imminent danger of losing.

Relating to pool as it does, it is no surprise that the expression is American. It dates from the early 20th century – the earliest citation I can find is from the Ohio newspaper The Marion Star, May 1916:

“When John Lewis came out and put America behind the eight ball I went around grabbing ‘Kindly Step To The Back of the Car’ signs from elevators on account of they kind of expressed the message of Lewis to the American people.”

The term was used in the title of a biography of ‘Minnesota Fats’ – the stage name of the pool player Rudolph Wanderone. That was rather an optimistic title, as Wanderone was by all accounts a much better self-publicist than ever he was a pool player. He played some televised demonstration matches against Willie Mosconi, who beat him easily.

– Special thanks to Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder

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