Off the cuff - language log
Posted: 17 August 2012 08:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  360
Joined  2012-01-10

There is an interesting discussion going on in language log, regarding the origin of the idiomatic expression “off the cuff”, which was begun by Mark Liberman.  It seems to be right up the ally of this group so I thought I’d post a link to it here.

Mr. Liberman notes that he’d assumed that the expression related to an old fad of men wearing removable, paper, cuffs, and making written notes on such cuffs.  The metaphor in the idiomatic expression is of relying on such hastily scribbled notations on a detachable cuff, instead of using a fully-written script.  However, the timing doesn’t seem to add up: paper cuffs were a short-lived fad which died out before the 20th century(perhaps as early as 1876) while the idiomatic expression “off the cuff” doesn’t appear until about 1936 (interestingly enough, it seems to have begun life in the film industry).  Mr. Liberman poses several theories, none of which are fully satisfactory (to him).

The posters on language log have uncovered several interesting tidbits and offered several interesting ideas.  Among other things, there were detachable celluloid cuffs, that were washable (a few times), and still used into the 1920s.  Also, there are literary references to men writing notes on the cuffs of their shirts from 1900 to 1910 (perhaps later), and at least some of these appear to be non-removable cuffs.  Either of these practices/ideas could be the inspiration behind the metaphor in the “off the cuff” expression, and either would shorten the gap between the practice of scribbling on cuffs and the origin of the expression, so I think the posters are on to something, and it seems unlikely to me that paper cuffs are the source of the metaphor behind the idiomatic expression.  (there are many other interesting ideas and tidbits that I won’t summarize here).

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