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This a dialogue from the movie The Secret of My Success (1987)

Short background story: a young guy from Kansas moves to New York City in high hopes that he will build a more interesting and financially better life. He's already got a job there and the following is what happens to him on his first day of work as he shows up at the office.

— Hi, I'm Brantley Foster from Kansas. You hired me. I start work here today.
— You're fired, kid. Sorry. We all saw it coming, but we looked for some kind of miracle. Miracle never happened.
— What did happen?
— Hostile takeover. Ninety percent of the people in this building are out on the street. You are one of those ninety percent. Tough break.
— Mr. Forbush, I was counting on this job. What do I do now?
Punt! (and he leaves)

I don't seem to be able to figure out what exactly Mr. Forbush, the boss of the company that just went out of business, means by that.

  • In my experience, "punt" is usually means to forgo a task or responsibility... "I punted on the cake I was supposed to bake for the party". No idea what he meant by it here. – Adam Starrh Nov 23 '15 at 1:25
  • Here is my guess (I haven't seen the movie) based on American football. If he were to say something longer: "You tried. You didn't succeed. You punt, and wait for your turn, hoping that your defense team will play well so you will get back to the field to play again soon." – Damkerng T. Nov 23 '15 at 18:30
5

I can't claim to speak from an area of great experience here -I'm not much of a sports guy, but here's how I've usually interpreted the expression.

To punt is to close your eyes, kick the ball as hard as you can and hope for the best. It's basically the equivalent of giving up on formulating a viable strategy and just blindly swinging as hard as you can.

In American football a team that does not think it can score a touchdown may instead chose to give up on scoring and instead punt the ball further downfield to simply put the other team at a disadvantage. So "punting" literally means to kick strongly but usually implies either a lack of strategy, giving up, delaying or gambling.

It may have slightly different meanings depending on context. In politics "punting" is linked to the expression "kicking the can down the road", or dodging responsibility by leaving a mess for someone in the future to clean up. Perhaps the most frequent common usage is to "punt on" an issue or question by leaving it unaddressed. It appears the British (and possibly others) use the phrase to represent a large gamble, but I'm less familiar with this usage and the sports analogy may differ for rugby.

Since it is a slang term it may be difficult to say exactly what was intended here, there are a few different interpretations.

I suspect in this movie, the boss is telling him that he is screwed, and has no viable strategy remaining. So the boss is probably telling him either to "give up" or "pray".

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    I think the meaning in this context was more like "if you put the effort into finding another job, you'll be OK" with a strong subtext of "not my problem, go away". (It has been quite a few years since I've watched that movie, but it was one of my favorites.) – Harry Johnston Nov 23 '15 at 1:18
8

It's an American football reference. It's a common metaphor to describe a change in tactics, typically moving forward into the unknown or less certain future, when you have been unsuccessful in the short term.

"A punt will occur is a team has reached fourth down and has decided that instead of attempting to go for a first down, they will give the ball back to the other team by using a punt. This enables the team to push the ball farther down the field, farther away from the end-zone on which their opposition is attempting to score." --SportingCharts.com

In American football each team has four "downs" -- four chances to move the ball forward at least 10 yards toward their opponents end of the field. After three attempts to advance 10 yards, if they don't think they will be successful, they will typically kick the ball as far as they can, setting the other team back, and giving them the chance to re-capture the ball and try again later.

cartoon illustrating the term "punt"

  • So, what is he saying exactly? – Michael Rybkin Nov 22 '15 at 16:18
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    He doesn't have a job there, so he has to go out and do something completely different. "Mr. Forbush, I was counting on this job." is like moving the football down the field in a passing game. That is no longer an option. There is no job. He's out of options with that approach. He needs to "punt' -- in other words, do something different. He needs to go find a different job at a different company or do something entirely different that will let him meet his goals. – Ultrasaurus Nov 22 '15 at 16:56
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    Explaining "punt" to somebody who doesn't know American football by a quote that requires understanding all kinds of other American football terms ("fourth down", "go for a first down", "end zone") doesn't actually achieve very much. – David Richerby Nov 23 '15 at 0:32
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    This is mostly right but you missed the connotation. It definitely comes from football but the connotation is that the issue is avoided, stalled, or delayed, and it's generally negative. – djechlin Nov 23 '15 at 0:58
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    I added a bit more explanation of how American football works. I attempted to capture the connotation with "unsuccessful in the short term." When you punt, you haven't lost the game. You are correct that it is still a setback, but teams will often punt and still win the game. I don't think it applies with this quote, but in alternate usage, a politician might punt on a question during a debate, and then they are just dodging it -- avoiding answering the question. – Ultrasaurus Nov 23 '15 at 1:18
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"Punt" also has informal meanings like "goof off", "go for a boat ride", or "procrastinate instead of working on a difficult problem".

1

It's an old idiom that addresses indecision. My dad used to use a form of it all the time: "If you don't know what to do, punt." Or, "Hey, if you can't make up your mind, punt."

It's not a metaphor for kicking the ball down the road, or screwing off, or any of that. It means, "Make up your damned mind and pick something." Punting isn't really being advocated—it's the absurd alternative to making up your mind.

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