Off the wall

Mon May 31 15:11:06 UTC 2004

        It seems unlikely to me that the sense of "off the wall" used in The Pool Shark, in reference to a cue that is in a rack on the wall and for the general use of the pool room's customers (and thus is of lower quality and less reliable than a custom made cue used only by its owner), is the source of the familiar phrase meaning odd or crazy.  I suspect that this is a nonce-use, and it's a bit of a stretch to get from "generic and unreliable" to "odd or crazy."  I'm also doubtful of the suggestion in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (16th ed.) that it alludes to a shot in squash or handball that comes off the wall at an unexpected or erratic angle.  The third possibility I've come across makes more sense to me:  HDAS quotes English Jour. (Mar. 1968), "off-the-wall, means:  could you picture someone bouncing himself off a wall."  While this is not as early as it might be (the phrase is at least 15 years older), it's still relatively early, and it fits with the similar phrase "bouncing off the walls" (meaning hyperactive or crazy).

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
Of Page Stephens
Sent: Monday, May 24, 2004 1:05 PM
Subject: Off the wall

I am curious where this phrase originated.

I have used it almost all of my life but have no idea.

It was probably in common currency before I heard Dave Dudley's song The Pool Shark which goes as follows but it makes very much sense in this context that I hesitate to suggest that this is not its origin.

This old pool, billiards and snooker  player who has both owned custom made cues and played off the wall would like to know.

You might also like to look at the other phrases in the song including "glue 'em up tight", the use of the word, "honey", etc. and go from there.

I appreciate the historical references which many of you find for usages of words and phrases but as an old anthropologist I am much more interested in usages in context at any point in time than I am investigating which may or may not have any relationship to the way they are/were later used.

This particular song and I could give you a thousand other examples is like a usage dictionary frozen in time, and it is my opinion that such songs contain words and phrases which made sense to the people who heard them but which no longer make any sense to most listeners.

My point if I even have one is that words and phrases cannot be understood in terms of their first use but only in terms of the way they are used at any point in time which for various socio-cultural, technological reasons freeze them.

Page Stephens

Here is the phrase in the song:

            Dave Dudley Album - The Pool Shark lyrics. Date: 01/01/1970

      Pool Shark lyrics

      He said pardon me for bein' so bold but you got a cigarette that's already
      I gave him one he lit it in his own good time
      The smoke in that poolroom hung like a fog
      When he talked it sounded like a growling dog
      He said would you care for a dollar on the five or nine
      Now this man was ugly and his eyes were mean
      His clothes were dirty but his hands were clean
      He held that stick like a mother holds the hand of the child
      Well I've been known to hustle a few when the waitress said was he playing
      And I said yeah bring me brandy water by
      Little Red Parker was way in the back taking quarters and hadling racks
      And I told him Red come up here glue 'em up tight
      That brandy had me feeling warm I tipped that waitress and I checked her
      And I said honey you like a winner and she just smiled
      I played like a man with a broken wrist I won two and he won six
      And I had him set up so I said let's play for five
      But this time the crowd had gathered round to see this fish and just watch
      him drown
      I told that waitress more brandy water by
      Then he went out and got a custom cue he said it's no offence to you
      But I don't play off the wall with nobody but friends
      He had a gold initials in a leather grip pearly and silver inlaid tip
      He smiled at me and he said hell-a-way we play for ten
      Well I never seen a man that walk who made those balls and table talk
      They're speaking English he sure didn't need my help
      He broke the ball and kept that string for a hundred and eighty seven
      bucks and a ring
      Till I gave up and said friend you're gonna have to play by yourself
      Well he racked it up and walked outside and I strolled out just to watch
      him ride
      And there was a blonde in their Caddy built like the rest of that car
      The boys in the poolroom they had 'em a laugh and I hung it up and just
      let it pass
      And had nothin' but my elbows to put on the bar
      And the waitress smiled said water by I took the chairity and thanked her
      And sittin' there sippin' and suddenly I had me a thought
      Unlucky gambler and lucky in love guess you know what I was thinking of
      When I said waitress honey what time do you get off

      Copyright(c) 2002-2004
      Dave Dudley - Pool Shark lyrics albums, discography of Dave Dudley

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