Off the Cuff

Several years ago, I wrote a very occasional column of observations on subjects that struck my fancy. The column was, as its title said, off the cuff – spontaneous, informal, spur-of-the-moment.

Published March 7, 2014 9:32 PM
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Off-The-CufthumbSeveral years ago, I wrote a very occasional column of observations on subjects that struck my fancy. The column was, as its title said, off the cuff – spontaneous, informal, spur-of-the-moment.

By Allen Clark

 

Off-The-CufSeveral years ago, I wrote a very occasional column of observations on subjects that struck my fancy. The column was, as its title said, off the cuff – spontaneous, informal, spur-of-the-moment.

With this issue, I am reviving “Off the Cuff” and hope to publish it more often than occasionally. I thought I’d start with the column’s title itself.  For all I know, “off the cuff” has little meaning to GenXers and Millennials.
 No one knows its origin for sure, but it seems to be a metaphor linked to the habit of speakers – pre-iPad – who reportedly sometimes jotted down notes on their shirt cuffs (in pencil, one would hope). In my great-grandparents’ day, those cuffs were often removable, even disposable (someone had invented snap-on paper cuffs).

I turned to my friend Google and learned some interesting things. I discovered what may be one of the least-known services of Google called “Ngram Viewer.” Ever heard of it? Check it out: books.google.com/ngrams. I type in “off the cuff”; look what pops up! (You can do this for any word or phrase you are curious about.)

The moving line shows the number of times the three words “off the cuff” appear, from 1880 to 2008, when Google looked through its entire corpus of  “English books.” (Google has over five billion total digitized books, from which the ones in English got looked at.) Google did the calculation in less time that it took me to type the first four words of this sentence!

Back to why I searched, the graph shows that the metaphor seemed to get popular with something that happened in the 1930/40s. Google came to the rescue again. In what was a funny skit in the 1936 silent movie “Modern Times,” Paulette Goddard told Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp to write song lyrics on his cuff. Very possibly this explains why use of the expression in print started its upward movement then, peaking in 1958. After dropping a bit, I noticed it started to go back up again in the early 2000s (related to the start of this column, perhaps?).

 

We’ll be tracking it.

 

 

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