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shameless pleading

Off the cuff

Because people don’t pay to hear “Beats me.”

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the expression “off the cuff”? — Molly Woollett.

Ok, maybe you have to be me to find this funny, and few people are. Usually no more than two or three at a time. Anyway, here we have a question about speaking extemporaneously, with no preparation and no notes (supposedly), and I am about to go look it up. I actually could give a reasonably complete explanation of the logic of the phrase “off the cuff” off the cuff, without peeking at a single reference source, but that would be about as much fun as frozen pizza. It would be an answer, but not a real answer.

We think of “cuff” today usually as meaning the part of a garment sleeve that covers the wrist or, depending on fashion, a fold of fabric turned-up at the end of a trouser leg. But when “cuff” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it meant “a glove or mitten.” The “cuff” at the end of your sleeve wasn’t called that until the early 16th century. The exact origin of “cuff” is a mystery; all we know is that it existed in Middle English as “coffe” and “cuffe.” The verb “to cuff,” meaning “to strike or hit,” is apparently unrelated to this “cuff” and may be related to the Swedish “kuffa,” meaning “to thrust or push.”

There is, of course, another verb “to cuff,” meaning “to put handcuffs on,” “handcuff” being derived (1690) from the “sleeve” sort of “cuff.” What’s interesting about that “Cuff ‘em, Danno” verb is that it actually dates all the way back to the late 17th century (“He was cuff’d and shackled with irons, and committed to Newgate,” 1693). Along with being short for “handcuff,”   “cuff” has since come to mean any sort of band or strap that encircles a pole, post, shaft, tube or human arm, as in the “cuff” of the sphygmomanometer (great word) used to measure your blood pressure.

“Off the cuff” is a colloquial phrase, dating back to at least the late 1930s, which first appeared in the US. A speech (or similar locution) or performance in a play given ad lib, without formal preparation, is said to be “off the cuff” because it is as if the speaker had only had time to jot a few notes on their shirt cuff before ascending the podium or taking the stage. According to lexicographer Christine Ammer (in her wonderful book “Have A Nice Day — No Problem!,” a dictionary of cliches), the phrase comes from the “alleged” practice of after-dinner speakers making notes on their shirt cuffs. I don’t know about cuffs, but I have been known to jot tiny notes on the palm of my hand before interviews (mostly “Mention title of book!”), and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin caught a lot of media flak (mostly from people using teleprompters) in 2010 for doing the same thing. The trick, incidentally, is to write only on your left hand so you don’t smear ink on people when you shake hands later.

Although we use usually “off the cuff” to mean “completely extemporaneously, with no preparation,” the origin of phrase itself implies at least a little forethought. And even if a politician is suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by a TV news camera and asked to give a statement, you can rest assured that your public servant has been “prepped” with a list of talking points and has no need to ruin a perfectly nice shirt with crib notes.

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