Words-worth: Out of the box

'It's an out-of-the-box, left-field type of a deal,' said an analyst about the $7.4bn acquisition of Sun Microsystems by Oracle in April. But what is this box that we are always encouraged to think outside? 'Box' is an Old English word, first recorded around the year 1000, and possibly taken from the name of the tree used to make boxes. A few moments' thought will bring many uses of the word to mind, but none that explains the phrase, first recorded in 1975 in a US aviation magazine: 'We must step back and see if the solutions to our problems lie outside the box.' To 'think outside the box' made its UK debut in a job advertisement in the Sunday Times in 1997. It seems to be an allusion to a puzzle - used by trainers to encourage original thought - in which you have to connect the nine dots of a square grid, using only four straight lines, and without taking your pencil off the paper. Try it. The trick is that you can only do it if some of the lines extend 'outside the box' formed by the grid. So now you know.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

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