“Lost the Plot”

When a friend wrote in a Facebook post the other day that a certain political figure had “lost the plot,” my NOOB-dar came on. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase but it had the definite feel of a Britishism, and sure enough, it is.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “lose the plot” as “to lose one’s ability to understand or cope with events; to lose one’s touch; to go off the rails.” There is a dubious 17th-century citation, with the  next not coming till a 1984 quote from The Times, presumably about a fashion show: “Arabella Pollen showed sharp linens, lost the plot in a sarong skirt and brought out curvaceous racing silk and a show-stopping bow-legged Willie Carson.”

As to the phrase’s national origin, the OED doesn’t say. A 1994 article in The American Scholar claims it’s Australian. It would be interesting to hear about that from an Australian. In any case, it definitely is a Britishism, as shown in this Google Ngram Viewer chart comparing uses of the phrase “lost the plot” in books published in the U.S. and the U.K:

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 9.36.34 AM

Interestingly, the first time it shows up in the New York Times, in 1998, it’s also in a fashion article:

From the parade of Mao worker jackets with frog closures and cheongsam dresses at Ferragamo to the indiscriminate layering of tulle and other sheer fabrics over trousers and skirts at Anna Molinari, many designers in Milan had a story’s worth of ideas, but they had lost the plot.

It’s been used a few dozen of times since then, most recently less than a week ago, in a May 14 article about entertainment mogul Sumner Redstone:

The legal fracas has changed Mr. Redstone’s public image from a firebrand whose business acumen and ruthlessness won him control of Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS, a $40 billion empire, into something quite different. In the local parlance, he lost the plot.

36 thoughts on ““Lost the Plot”

  1. Hah! As an American in London (which is the focus of my blog) i say this phrase all the time. Love it. Also am learning to say ‘pardon’ instead of ‘what?’ British english is hard!

    1. Careful now. Saying ‘what?’ to mean ‘what did you say?’ is considered classier than ‘pardon?’ I sometimes say ‘I do beg your pardon’ when I mean ‘I apologise’. E.g., ‘I DO beg your pardon – I didn’t realise this was your seat. Please sit down.’

      1. Well i have to politely disagree with you here. I have heard people who say’what?’ Publicly ‘pulled up’ on this and told not to act so ‘common.’ I guess it depends on where you live and your age. I am no expert though!

      2. In his 1954 essay that coined the terms “U” (upper-class) and “non-U”” (not upper class, obviously), Alan Ross said “pardon?” was non-U and “what?” was U.

      3. Yes, “what” is both classier and less classy than “pardon”. It is one of several class markers where the upper/upper middle and the lower agree, presumably to distinguish themselves from the despised middle/lower middle. “Lavatory” (Upper and Lower) versus “Toilet” (Middle) is another.

    2. The very first time that I had heard the expression “Lost the plot” was in the lyrics of the 1994 song “Now They’ll Sleep” by the music band Belly, led by front woman Tonya Donelly:

      Now I’ve lost the plot
      I’m not the hero I could be
      But not the dog I was

  2. London. Far more than the chaotic references such as ‘going off the rails’; ‘losing the ability to cope’; etc., I usually encounter and use ‘lost the plot’ to mean ‘became enraged’; ‘had an angry outburst’ or ‘flipped ones lid’.
    Does anyone else think it has evolved to reflect a hot tempered episode over the inability to be clear and organised?

    1. I’ve not heard of that usage of the term.
      Here in Australia itis definitely used to mean that someone has become confused or left behind through stupidity or lack of attention. “Off the rails” doesn’t really cut it as a definition, because it refers to mental disarrangement. Losing the plot is more about failing to understand or follow what is going on.
      I always thought that “lost the plot” was a British expression. I have been hearing here in Oz for more years than I can remember. It was certainly around before 1984.

      1. I suppose it could work when used this way, now I think about it. To me, losing the plot means deviating from a course of action or behaviour that would have been appropriate or advisable, and one way of doing this would be to lose one’s temper, so I would see it as a subset of the possible usages of the phrase.

  3. Author of the article in the NYT, Laura Holson, is talking about Hollywood when she says “local parlance.” I wonder why. That certainly doesn’t sound Australian.

    1. It’s strange that you say that because I was just about to say, “Isn’t it about time for Google’s Ngram to add an Australian English category, because ‘lost the plot’ sure sounds Aussie to me?” Unless I misunderstand your references….

  4. Lost the plot — I like it. I’m going to start using it. I’m tired of using Denny Crane’s (William Shatner in “Boston Legal”) lame “mad cow” as a poor attempt at a humorous excuse for my dotage.

  5. As an Aussie, I can’t tell you if we invented the phrase, but I reckon we’d all know what it means. I’ve been hearing it all my life (46+ years)

  6. Lost the plot is when you get so caught up in peripheries that you forget your central ambition. It can be applied to over zealous hen parties as much as government policy.

    And to samdfb1, as a partially deaf Brit I find ‘Pardon’ and ‘what?’ redundant. I use ‘Sorry?’ for bar and wait staff and “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what you were saying.” for all other encounters.

    If it gets to 3 repetitions and I still can’t decipher what they are saying I laugh awkwardly and say something non-committal like, ‘Isn’t life funny,’ or ‘That’s a great story.’ or ‘I think you should talk to my supervisor.’ Depending on the situation…

    1. Yeah, I have that problem, too. And I’m always afraid I’ll laugh awkwardly when I’ve not been able to hear that what someone’s just told me about is some ghastly family tragedy.

  7. Another Aussie here. I’ve also heard it for decades. I was under the impression it was of Aus origin, but I don’t know how I got that idea. I think Carolyn Dobson’s is the best definition. Here there is no sense of rage involved. To the contrary, it connotes a forlorn soul out of their depth: “Poor Auntie Agatha’s lost the plot again. We really should think about a nursing home”.

    1. That’s how I (Brit) would expect it to be used. I’ve always seen it as a metaphor, suggesting that the subject person was previously successful in the endeavour being talked about because they were following a prescription, like the script of a play or film, but their attention wandered (or they misplaced the script) and they deviated from the plot, leading to failure.

  8. ‘nother ‘Strayan here. I’ve heard it and used it since the early 1980s at least, possibly much earlier. It contains an implied empathy which unlike most Australian phrases, can be modified by prefacing it with the f* adjective. This then conveys the frustration or rage at the subject. For that reason, I’ve always thought it was British in origin.

    Most Australian slang uses amplification to convey endearment, for example, your best friends are referred to as “big bastards” while the most evil person on the planet would be “a bit of a bastard”.

  9. I often use the term ‘lost the plot’ which I equate to losing your temper. My mum was born in London though, but my Kiwiness says sometimes you have to lose the plot so you can wing it, and free yourself from the script.

  10. Whenever I have heard Brits use it, the sense is that someone has lost his way [in life, in a project, an attempt to persuade, not where he actually is], someone has forgot his purpose, that one is still struggling along and no longer recalls why. It means confused or lost but only for specific contexts.

  11. Instead of “what” or “pardon”, I find most British people I talk to, will say “Ay” instead – which rhymes with the first letter of the alphabet. The only time I’ve really heard British people say “What?” is on TV and it sounded more like “Wot?” – especially when spoken by Tennant’s Doctor who probably had a few Tennent’s before saying it.

  12. I just today read in the NYT a review by Brit Andrew Sullivan of a book on conservatism by Edmund Fawcett in which Sullivan used “lost the thread” to mean something I imagine to be like “lost the plot.” Suppose it’s the same?

  13. The New York Times fashion article has the distinct whiff of a writer who’s recently encountered the phrase and is trying to use it nonchalantly, while at the same time knowing it will have to be explained to the readership. “They had a story’s worth of ideas, but they lost the plot” is … yeesh.

    I agree that “lost the plot” refers to being muddled or losing control of what’s going on, but it can’t be used in all contexts. It doesn’t mean being angry (though it might cause anger, if the person is that way inclined). It doesn’t mean dementia or forgetfulness (though it might be an early sign of them).

    If you’re reading a book, you might lose track of the main plot by becoming bogged down in long passages of description or unimportant subplot scenes. Figuratively, if you’ve “lost the plot”, you’ve become sidetracked or distracted from the important issue at hand.

  14. Another Australian who has heard it used all my life, back into the 1970s. I did a quick Trove (the amazing National Library of Australia free newspaper archive) search to see when it was used in newspapers in Australia.

    It was used a lot in the 1990s. At first it seems to have been used mostly when reporting about (Aussie Rules) Football games, and then in letters from the public and then into regular reporting.

    I checked for the first print records of the phrase and there is a satirical piece dating back to the 1880s https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/174596480

    1. Very interesting–thanks. But note that the 1880s example is about going to a play and literally losing (track) of the plot. I still have not seen an example of metaphorical lost the plot before the OED’s quote from 1984. That isn’t to say it wasn’t used in speech in the 1970s. But if it were common then, you would think it would show up in print.

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