Noun > Pinball

Noun – Pinball

Although “pinball” first meant “pincushion,” by 1911 it also meant “a game played by knocking marbles around.” In the game, traditionally, all the little traps and targets are marked with pins, which is why it’s called pinball. And of course, the word “pinball” can also refer to one of the marbles.

If you get figurative and call someone or something a pinball, you mean it’s somebody or something that gets knocked around from here and there in a random way. And if you refer to a situation as pinball, you mean it involves that kind of motion.

You can also use “pinball” as a verb. To pinball is to get knocked around here and there in a random way.

Part of speech:
both a noun (“he’s a pinball“) and a verb (“the company keeps pinballing him from role to role“).

Other forms:
pinballs, pinballed, pinballing.

how to use it:
When you refer to things or people as pinballs, or when you say that they pinball (or pinball around, pinball across some place, or pinball from place to place, etc.), you’re saying that they’re bonking or whizzing randomly around, with very little in the way of plans or control.

So, it’s a fun and colorful metaphor, with a slightly negative tone.

Although you most often use “pinball” as a noun or a verb, you can also use it as an adjective: “pinball energy” (New York Times), “pinball politics” (BBC).

“Many’s the time I’ve walked with her on a London sidewalk. As I pinball about, dodging the oncoming crowd — right, center, left — I look over to see her locomoting resolutely in her lane, as determined as a salmon swimming against the stream.”
— John Kelly, Washington Post, 10 July 2019

“Jayshree Seth rose to corporate scientist precisely because she was allowed to pinball around different technological domains. Staying in one technical lane isn’t her thing.”
— David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, 2019