Wheelhouse: In baseball, the path of a batter's best swing. By extension, any area of expertise.
Wheelhouse has been around a long time (see below), but I first heard it a couple of weeks ago in, of all things, an episode of Glee. The word was uttered by the vociferously anti-sports gay character Kurt, who was reassuring another character, Finn, that a certain song was "in your wheelhouse."
I got the drift but had no idea where wheelhouse had originated. Theater slang? Music slang? Gay slang?
Baseball? What do wheels and houses have to do with baseball?
Here's what I learned.
The baseball sense of wheelhouse first appeared in print in 1959, according to the Word Detective. (You'll have to scroll down pretty far; there are no internal links.) However, wheelhouse was adopted by baseball from an earlier usage. Word Detective goes on to say:
There are actually three possible origins for this baseball "wheelhouse": a ship's pilothouse, the locomotive turntable housing, or the paddlewheel housing on the stern of a riverboat. The argument for a ship's pilothouse being the source is that it is the center of control of the ship, so for a pitch to be "in the wheelhouse" would logically mean that it is under the batter's control in a way that other pitches are not.On the other hand, it does seem more likely that the locomotive turntable "wheelhouse" (often called a "roundhouse") is the source, likening the awesome swing of the rail yard turntable to the batter's powerful swing. An additional argument for this theory is that sweeping side-arm pitches have been known as "roundhouse" pitches since about 1910, and, of course, the "roundhouse punch" is delivered with the same sort of motion. Thus, by 1959, this sort of "wheelhouse" had already been used as a metaphor for powerful motion for more than fifty years.
The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, published in 2006, has this definition for wheelhouse:
And that's it.
Sometimes "Look it up in the dictionary" is the least helpful suggestion you can make.
For some freewheeling speculation about wheelhouse by actual athletes, see this ESPN Answer Guy column. And for a list of American idioms that originated in baseball, see this Wikipedia list. I'm relieved to report that I was familiar with all of them.
As for when wheelhouse became general, non-baseball slang, I have no idea. Readers?
UPDATE: Commenter Michael reminded me that he'd written about wheelhouse twice in 2008. His original post examined the limitations of dictionaries with metaphors-in-progress like wheelhouse. (I see that one of his commenters heard wheelhouse on the same episode of Glee on which I noted it; apparently singers now use the term frequently.) Michael's follow-up post considered the shift from "It's in my wheelhouse" to "I'm in my wheelhouse." Interesting stuff.