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In the field

Q From Meg Pitt: We were having a discussion at work and were wondering what the origin of the phrase in the field was. The reference was to people who work outside or remotely from the main office.

A It comes from one of the earliest senses of field, one that is now obsolete. Originally field meant any open, flat stretch of unwooded landscape, not one that was necessarily cultivated. It was also used specifically as the opposite of an urban area, as in town and field. Such open areas were the sort of terrain preferred for the set-piece battles of earlier times, and so it became used in such expressions as field of battle. To be in the field then meant to be away from headquarters on a military campaign. The phrase has more recently shifted to refer to anybody who works away from base, even though they may actually be in an urban area and not out in the countryside at all.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 Jul. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 17 July 1999.