Off the wall

Mark A. Mandel mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU
Tue Jun 1 17:19:06 UTC 2004

Wilson Gray <hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET> says

There are two different "off the hooks," so to speak. The fishing one
has to do primarily with getting out of a tight. (In BE, it's not
necessary to add "spot" or some such after "tight"). "The note from my
wife got me off the hook." The other, hip-hop one is derived from
phrases like, "The telephone has been ringing _off the hook_ all day"
because something really important is happening and you need to know
about it, so you can get the hook-up.

"Hook-up" has nothing to do with it -- maybe you were just adding that as a
decorative fillip, but it's not clear to me. "Ringing off the hook" long
antedates hip-hop and the modern social sense of "hook-up".

"On-hook" and "off-hook" are states of the telephone circuit. Normally it's
on hook = hung up, not in use, ready to receive a call. When you pick up the
receiver it's off hook.

I know these as technical terms, but I am assuming that they derive from a
period when the part of the telephone that one picked up was literally
supported by a hook when not in use. If I recall correctly, that accurately
describes the old upright sets (before my day, but familiar from cartoons
and antique stores) in which the microphone was at the top of a vertical
stand and the earphone was a separate piece connected by a wire and
supported by a hook. To use the phone, you would pick up the stand, take the
earphone unit off the hook and put it to your ear, and hold the microphone
to your mouth. Removing the weight of the earphone from the hook would let
the hook rise, closing the circuit: what I know of colloquially as "picking
up the phone" and technically as putting it "off-hook".

Given those terms, "ringing off the hook" is easy to derive: figuratively,
the telephone is ringing so much, it's so excited, that the receiver is
jumping off the hook by itself.

-- Mark Mandel
[This text prepared with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.]

More information about the Ads-l mailing list