Off the wall

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Tue Jun 1 18:22:20 UTC 2004

On Jun 1, 2004, at 1:19 PM, Mark A. Mandel wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Mark A. Mandel" <mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Off the wall
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> 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.]

Indeed. In fact, being a senior citizen, I well remember using the kind
of telephone that you describe, assuming that, by "microphone." you
mean "mouthpiece." It wasn't necessary to pick up the whole telephone,
unless that was your personal style of using one. You just took the
earpiece off the hook, put it to your ear, and spoke into the
mouthpiece, while sitting or standing.
I assume that you're not familiar with the movie, "The Hook-Up," given
that this is a hip-hop movie about telephones. In fact, the movie's
protagonist uses the phrase, "I got the hook-up," as the slogan for his
business of selling cellular telephones that had "fallen off a truck."
And weren't we discussing only the fact that the derivation of  "off
the hook" in hip-hop slang is different from the derivation of the
standard English locution "(get) off the hook"? I was, in any case.

-Wilson Gray

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