Behind the eight ball
What's the meaning of the phrase 'Behind the eight ball'?
To be 'behind the eight ball' is to be in a difficult position from which it is unlikely you can escape.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Behind the eight ball'?
There is dispute about the origin of this phrase. Some say that it derives from the Eight Ball version of the game of pool. The balls are numbered and must be potted in order. A turn is forfeited if a player's cue ball hits the (black) eight ball first and the game is forfeited if the eight ball is potted by mistake. A 'behind the eight ball' position leaves a player in a difficult position. There is little agreement about when the game began to be played with eight balls, or when it was first called Eight Ball.
Another version is that the term derives from the game of Kelly Pool, in which players are allocated one of 16 balls to pot and the players with the lower numbered balls play first. Those players that are given balls higher than eight are unlikely to win the game. This second supposed derivation carries less plausibility, as:
- It would make just as much sense to say 'behind the seven/nine etc. ball' and no such phrases have ever entered the language.
- The context of that explanation would suggest that the phrase would have been coined as 'after the eighth ball' (and the eighth ball isn't named as the eight ball in Kelly Pool) rather than 'behind the eight ball'.
- The phrase means (and is documented as meaning, as early as 1931 in the New York Times), 'in a tight spot', not 'unlikely to win', which is a quite different meaning.
However, as we often find, plausibility isn't everything and further research may prove the case one way or the other. Clearly, a citation of the use of the phrase before the the use of an eight ball in the game we now call Eight Ball pool would rule that out as the origin.
Of course, there may be some altogether unrelated source. There is a game called Eight-ball Croquet, for instance, which pre-dates both of the above forms of pool/billiards. The eight ball isn't specifically named in that game, so it is difficult to see how the phrase might have originated there.
All of the early known citations of the phrase are American. It dates from the early 20th century - the earliest citation that I can find is from the Wisconsin newspaper The Sheboygan Press, December 1929:
"Bill ['Lucky' Bill McKechnie, manager of the Boston Braves] figures he can finish behind the eight ball with any kind of a ball team, so there's no harm in trying out young talent as there's nothing to lose beyond last place."
The precise date of the coining of the phrase isn't known. It is a fact that it appears in print many times in American newspapers from December 1929 onwards. I can find no uses of the phrase prior to that date.
'Behind The Eight Ball' 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.