Business jargon isn’t in her wheelhouse

What is a wheelhouse, and why are businesspeople so concerned with establishing what’s in it?

Joe Mahoney/AP
One of the meanings of the term ‘wheelhouse’ is a batter's sweet spot. Here, San Diego Padres batter Franmil Reyes hits a home run in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies in Denver on May 12.

In business jargon, wheelhouses come up a lot. “That’s in my wheelhouse.” “Be open to expanding your wheelhouse.” What is a wheelhouse, and why are businesspeople so concerned with establishing what’s in it?

Your wheelhouse is your area of expertise. To use another bit of business-speak, it’s your core competency. While everyone has a metaphorical wheelhouse, most of us don’t have experience with actual ones. 

A wheelhouse can also be called a pilothouse, the room on largish boats that houses the steering mechanism. The term was first used in 1835, and for a century or so it was specific to boating. 

In the 1950s, however, it migrated to baseball, coming to mean the batter’s sweet spot, where the player can hit most forcefully and with the most control. Etymologists give different explanations for this transition. A baseball player’s swing is ideally a “roundhouse,” according to Peter Tamony, which resembles a wheel. If the player can hit the ball while swinging, it would be in his wheelhouse. Alternately, the word could have moved via analogy – the wheelhouse is where the pilot controls the boat and where the player controls the ball. In any case, by the 1980s it had spread from baseball to business. 

Like the phrase core competency, wheelhouse can rub some people the wrong way. If you want to convey that you are good at something, you might avoid “it’s in my wheelhouse” and go with “I am an expert” instead.

If you’re steering clear of wheelhouses, you can also say “that’s my bailiwick,” or “that’s in my bailiwick,” which means the same thing but tends not to appear in business jargon. A bailiwick (pronounced “bay-lee-wick”) is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a district or place under the jurisdiction of a ... bailiff.”

That is not so helpful until we define bailiff, which in this sense is not an official who is responsible for maintaining order in the modern-day courtroom. From the 13th century, bailiffs were local government officials, like sheriffs or mayors, or agents of the lord of a manor, who collected rents and taxes. A bailiwick, then, was the area in which this sort of bailiff had power.

The term was prevalent in its original sense from the 16th to 18th centuries but is rarely used today, except in the United Kingdom, where it can still refer to a sheriff’s territory, and in the Channel Islands, which are still officially bailiwicks administered by bailiffs. In the mid-19th century, it took on the sense of “a person’s special interest, skill, or area of expertise,” and that’s what it commonly means today.

Though few of us are boat pilots, and even fewer of us are administrative officials in the Channel Islands, we all have our own wheelhouses and bailiwicks.

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