Off the wall

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Tue Jun 1 03:24:03 UTC 2004

FWIW, the late, great blues harpist, Marion Walter "Little Walter"
Jacobs, recorded an instrumental with the title, "Off The Wall," on
March 4, 1953 at the Chess Records studio in Chicago.
Contemporaneously, the phrase, "off the wall," became hip among blacks.
We used it as a general pejorative with the meanings "lame, uncool,
unhip, countrified, stupid, fucked up," etc. In fact, we "old heads"
still use it with these meanings. I've long wondered whether the slang
term was derived from the song title or the song title was inspired by
the slang phrase. Normally, a song would become popular and contribute
new words and/or phrases to the vocabulary of slang. But "Off The
Wall," being an instrumental, had no words, except for its title. And
there's the mystery as to why this neutral phrase came to be used only
as a pejorative, given that a very similar phrase, "off the hook," is
used only as a meliorative.

On May 31, 2004, at 11:11 AM, Baker, John wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Baker, John" <JMB at STRADLEY.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Off the wall
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
>         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
>       rolled
>       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
>       you
>       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
>       form
>       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
>       polite
>       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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