Right in our wheelhouse, wherever it is

Idioms enrich our language with the word pictures they suggest, but they work best when we understand the concrete images behind them.

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Tyanna Jones arrives at the 'American Idol XIV' finalists party at The District by Hannah An in Los Angeles.

Are you in your wheelhouse? If so, is there something special in there with you?

Wheelhouse has been popping up in the news flow often enough lately to catch my eye (and ear). When people use it, they get their point across, but it’s not always clear what they think a wheelhouse actually is.

It’s “an enclosed area on a boat or ship where a person stands to steer.” Thank you, Merriam-Webster. Another dictionary definition explains that the pilothouse (another term for wheelhouse) is the place “from which the ship is usually conned,” or navigated. 

WNPR, the public radio station serving Connecticut, has a weekly news roundtable program called “The Wheelhouse.” That title makes sense if a wheelhouse is a place from which to look at what obstacles the ship of state is facing, and how it needs to chart its course going forward.

The show title suggests a latter-day counterpart to “The Conning Tower,” the long-running newspaper column written by Franklin P. Adams (1881-1960).

Another outfit whose name draws on this same idea is Wheelhouse LLC, in Tennessee. It describes itself as “an innovative executive management firm specializing in growing shareholder value.” It evidently seeks to distinguish itself from the kind of backward-looking management firms that specialize in losing their investors’ money. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) To be fair, though, they’ve picked a good image from which to build a corporate name: the place from which you steer.

But what do we make of this headline from a Canadian news site: “John Morris in his wheelhouse as Canada’s third for curling championship.” Now curling is one of those phenomena that serve to remind us that Canada and the United States are two very different countries. But the nub of the story was that this fellow Morris demoted himself to third position on his curling team for the good of the whole.

He was exercising what is sometimes known as “lateral leadership.” But maybe he was in “the” wheelhouse when he was doing it, rather than just “his” wheelhouse.

And what about this comment on the prospects of Tyanna Jones of being able to do a good job in the “American Idol” competition, in which her task was to perform a song made famous by Kelly Clarkson? “Kelly Clarkson songs are so in her wheelhouse.”

So it’s the thing, and not the person, that’s in the wheelhouse? Where was Tyanna when Clarkson’s songs were in her wheelhouse? Out on the promenade deck?

Was the commenter trying to suggest that Clarkson’s songs were, to use another familiar idiom, “right up her alley”? Or perhaps better yet, to borrow a phrase from sports, “in her sweet spot” – the point from which she is most effective?

Idioms enrich our language with the word pictures they suggest, almost like subplots in a movie. But they work best when their metaphorical origins are still clear – and clearly understood by both speaker and listener. 

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