Off the Cuff

In the course of wishing me a felicitous natal anniversary, David was working (as he put it) off-the-cuff.  This phrase is not unfamiliar to me, but since he had also mentioned clichés people named Joy tend to hear, I was pondering the nature of clichés and phrases and in short began wondering what it means to wish someone well off-the-cuff.

Sometimes I investigate idioms only to found that some other chap has done the legwork already and put it neatly (though advertisement-laden) on the network of thought.  According to those sorts of sources, one theory is that the first people who worked “off-the-cuff” were bartenders, who would keep a tally of their patrons’ bill on their cuffs.  Another slightly more legitimate claim is that it “alludes to the practice of speakers making last-minute notes on the cuff of a shirtsleeve. [1930s]”

(Though if one were reading prepared remarks off one’s cuff, that is contrary to one not having prepared anything and therefore being off-cuff as a prepared actor is off-book.  And reading off one’s cuff is not impromptu.  How distressing.)

Anyway, I wanted to see when the term first cropped up and so turned to Google’s Ngram viewer (although I can’t figure out why it’s called that; the thing’s been around for nearly a year and I haven’t paid enough attention to it).  According to all the books the handy Google chaps have digitized, the earliest use of the phrase occurs around 1830.  But I dug deeper and found that the first century of use employed it in phrases like “she cut off the cuff of his shirt” or “A spark in the mines burned off the cuff and a couple inches of my pant leg.”  Around 1946 it begins referring to people who are relying on their wit instead of cribbed notes on their shirt sleeves.

Annnnd speaking of wit and shirt sleeves, here’s a fun story.  In the course of reading all the little snippets of context Google provides, I found one from a 1939 magazine – the February issue of The Rotarian – which details the life and doings of Rabbi Henry Cohen, founder and “humanitarian face” of the Galveston Movement.

Rabbi Cohen wrote down names of people he wished to help each day on his cuffs, and crossed them off as he went.  One such name was Demchuk, a Russian Orthodox man whom the Rabbi got out of prison and into a job.  Another was Sidney Porter, wrongfully convicted (allegedly) and imprisoned until Cohen appealed on his behalf.

This is a story I have read before without realizing it, for I have posted about Sidney Porter before.  He is the fellow we all remember as O. Henry, and the fact that he spent some years in prison is documented in both the anthologies of his work I possess.  But I’d never spent a thought about how he left prison, or indeed, what marks it left on his character and mind.

Were I a better wordsmith, more like Mr. Porter himself, I would spin this into a story instead of mere narrative.  But there you have it: the happenstances that come to pass when David makes remarks off his cuffs.

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5 thoughts on “Off the Cuff

  1. I have probably heard the words “off the cuff” a thousand times in my life and never given the slightest thought to the question of the phrase’s origins. Thanks you for enlightening me!

  2. Fun with idioms! I am no language expert, but it sounds like the meaning of the phrase evolved over time, which I suppose is hardly surprising. Very interesting stuff!

    Also, that man has an excellent mustache.

  3. This is almost certainly the most productive my cuffs have ever been, and I will not take any credit for it. Your own blessed curiosity has led you down this delightful path.

    The speech theory sounds interesting and more plausible than the bartender one. The cuff notes (proto-Cliff Notes?) would have been last-minute and probably quite concise, and thus maybe not well integrated into the rest of the prepared speech, meaning the speaker may have had to do the integrating quickly as he spoke. This is all conjecture on my part, but I can imagine it happening to myself.

    • ^_^ Words to the world! That’s nigh-on synonymous with Joy to the world, methinks.

      I feel like we need to return to the fashions of yesteryear so as to have cuffs ready when we need them…none of this making notes on our phones or other nonsense…

      One of the greatest books I’ve never written is a long declamation against our reliance on Wikipedia and the like in the stead of our own little grey cells.

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