Off the wall

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon May 31 17:08:30 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 tend to agree.

>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.

I agree. A baseball association (e.g., "hit an off-the-wall double")
doesn't seem particularly likely to me either.

>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).

Possible but I'm not happy with "wall" replacing "walls".

Another possibility: since the 1940's (or earlier?), it has been
conventional to refer to a telephone ringing "off the wall" (i.e., ringing
"like crazy", I guess).

-- Doug Wilson

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