torturing metaphors

Where Did the Phrase ‘Over His Skis’ Come From?

Photo: Skistar Trysil/Flickr

A few weeks ago, when Barack Obama was called upon to explain whether Joe Biden was officially authorized to endorse gay marriage, the president explained, “He probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of generosity and spirit.” The metaphor, much-repeated since then, was both immediately clear — even the non-skiers among us get the physics implied by the phrase — and also managed to sound at once both powder-fresh and familiar. That’s one of those phrases arugula-eating politicos love to toss around, right? Probably something a lock-jawed Kennedy said once after a weekend on the slopes that caught on?

Actually, the phrase’s metaphorical use seems to have begun in the finance world. Its first non-skiing print usages came in the early nineties, in publications like Investment Dealers’ Digest. For instance, a 1991 article quoted a “market source” describing a race between Goldman Sachs’ and Lehman Bros.’ preferred stock desk. Someone said [Lehman] couldn’t get a clean legal opinion on it. They may have been out over their skis a little bit with their structure.” It makes sense that investment bankers would let their weekend hobbies inform their workday slang. It’s still a favorite in the finance world — far more than in political spheres — and so maybe it’s something Obama’s picked up from all his time hanging out with the Larry Summers and Tim Geithners of the world, trying to clean up the mess of a national economy that got a bit over its skis a few years back.

Or perhaps the president soaked up from his own weekend hobby. No, he doesn’t ski, but he does read the sports pages, and not long after the metaphor caught on in finance, sports writers started throwing it around to describe non-skiing sports — picking up on locker-room chatter, it seems. In 1996, the San Diego Union-Tribune quoted Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund on a player’s unlikely hitting streak. “What streak are you asking him about? He’s over his skis,” he said, deflecting the reporter’s hype in service of trying to keep his protégé’s head level. Or in 1997, when Cleveland Indians beat writer Bud Shaw pointed out general manager John Hart’s overenthusiam for having signed an aging Doc Gooden with “Hart went out over his skis in calling this ‘the prime of Doc’s career.’”

In other words, wherever Obama picked it up, it’s a way of taking someone down a peg without being too terribly harsh. Who ever thought a rousing defense of the right for gay couples to marry would be couched in such a bro-ish metaphor?

Where Did the Phrase ‘Over His Skis’ Come From?