In an email conversation, my friend used the lovely expression play it by ear: to use one’s intuition, to improvise and decide what to do as events unfold.

Clearly, it originates from playing a piece of music without reference to a score. To a non-native English speaker, this would still be rather confusing (think about it literally), but ‘ear’ as a metonym* for musical talent dates from the 16th century.

How the phrase came to be used in its other figurative context is less clear. One website suggests it first cropped up in mid-20th century America, such as in this from The Coshocton Tribune, February 1934:

“I am reliably informed today that the Brooklyn Dodgers, otherwise the daffiness boys [!], otherwise the young men who play by ear, are for sale.”

It’s such a good little idiom, though; it works well in any situation as a metaphor for acting spontaneously without guidance or a set of instructions. The internet also threw up a corresponding eggcorn…some people say ‘play it by year’ instead.

*A metonym is a word used to represent something it is a part of or adjunct to, so ‘ear’ meaning ‘hearing’, ‘tongue’ meaning ‘language’ and so on.

Next week – off the cuff!

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