Off the Cuff

Thu Aug 16 22:39:07 UTC 2012

Mark Liberman, writing in Language Log,, today has a post on the term "off the cuff," which the post antedates to 1936.  Mark quotes the OED gloss:  "off the cuff (as if from notes made on the shirt-cuff) orig. U.S., extempore, on the spur of the moment, unrehearsed."  He notes that, although men once wore disposable paper cuffs on which they could write notes, the fad ended before 1900.  He suggests four possibilities:

1.      Disposable paper cuffs remained in use, at least in certain groups, right up through 1950 or so;
2.      Movie directors, entertainment journalists, and politicians continued to write on their cuffs long after the cuffs ceased to be disposable;
3.      The expression "off the cuff" originated at some point around 1875, but managed to avoid appearing in print until 1936, and did not become common until the late 1940s, when the physical basis of the metaphor was long dead;
4.      The expression was born when the metaphor was already long dead.

Mark adds that his  feeling is that (1) is implausible, (2) is silly, (3) is unlikely, and (4) is weird.

My own view is that it's quite common for metaphors to achieve popularity - indeed, as far as we can tell, for them initially to emerge - only after the literal thing to which the metaphor refers has passed out of use.  Accordingly, I wouldn't find it at all surprising if people started saying "off the cuff" only after disposable cuffs were only a cultural memory.  This thought did not, however, convince me that "off the cuff," meaning spontaneous, necessarily derives from reading notes from a cuff, which implies little but not no preparation.

To the archives!  I thought I might be able to beat Mark's 1936 antedating, and I did, using Access Newspaper Archive.  The earliest example is from the San Antonio Light (July 2, 1926).  This is not the modern sense, but it may be relevant anyway.  "They [sc. some girls] can't seem to see that a lot of these white collar guys are just swivel chair chauffeurs dry-docked to a desk for the rest of their lives, and will still be taking office orders off the cuff when the guy with the grimy mitt owns the works!"

Five years later is an example from a fictional serial.  This is still not the "spontaneous" sense; I think it means to pay cash, as a negation of "on the cuff,"  on credit.  The story is serialized in a number of newspapers, with the earliest apparently being the Manitowoc (Wisc.) Herald News (Nov. 2, 1931).  "That's why we're dining in this dump tonight instead of in a joint that would fit those swell clothes of yours.  I'm eating off the cuff this week."

The spontaneous sense of "off the cuff" emerges shortly thereafter, in an article in the Corsicana (Tex.) Daily Sun (Dec. 18, 1931).  "The latest formulae for insuring movie hits - an air-tight script perfected before a camera is set up, with director and writer working together as a team - has been successful in a number of instances, relieving to some extent the worries of executives who feel keenly the need of money-makers. [para] Yet one picture that his [sic; probably should be has] its makers doing joyous nip-ups has been shot "off the cuff" in old quickie fashion - tha tis [sic], the director shot each day what the writer had finished the day before."

Beginning in 1932, "Off the Cuff" appears several times as a heading in In New York with Gilbert Swan, which appears to have been a syndicated column.  The earliest I see is from the Times Evening Herald (Olean, New York) (May 12, 1932).  After the "Off the Cuff" heading, the column begins:  "New York, May 12.  Notes from a convenient cuff . . . ." (ellipsis original).

So it appears that "off the cuff," meaning spontaneous, dates at least to 1931, and that early users were thinking of the analogy to disposable collars, with Gilbert Swan making the connection explicit in 1932.  The 1926 example from the San Antonio Light probably also refers to men writing on their cuffs.  I assume that the 1931 fiction is an outlier.

John Baker

The American Dialect Society -

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