Solving the mystery of "off the cuff"

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Peter Jensen Brown, "Paper Linen and Crib Notes – A Well-Planned History of 'Off the Cuff'", Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, 2/20/2015, following up on "The 'off the cuff' mystery", 8/16/2012:

The idiom, “off the cuff,” meaning “without preparation . . . as if from impromptu notes made on one’s shirt cuffs,” dates to the 1930s.  Mark Liberman, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, pushed the earliest known use of “off the cuff” back from 1938 to 1936; but wondered how or why the expression came into being decades after detachable paper cuffs had long fallen out of fashion, and with no apparent immediate impetus.  Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times, released in February 1936 (which features a scene in which Chaplin’s Tramp writes notes on his cuffs), notwithstanding; he could not find a satisfactory reason for the decades-long gap between paper-cuff fashion and the “off the cuff” expression; none of the seemingly plausible explanation made sense.  “So what happened?”

For the answer, see the rest of Peter's post.

[h/t Peter Reitan]




  1. GeorgeW said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 10:37 am

    Apparently, cuff-notes of a sort are alive and well. NFL quarterbacks use "cuff notes" to call plays (or decode signals from the coaches). I also noticed it recently in a college soft-ball game with the pitcher.

    My wife, a college teacher, finds various forms of 'cuff notes' not infrequently during exams, although not always literally on the cuff.

  2. Stephen Goranson said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 10:44 am

    Here is a 1934 use. The previous earliest mentioned was Aug. 16, 1936. Gene Fowler, Father Goose The Story of Mack Sennett (NY: Covici, Friede, 1934) page 147:
    He set up his cameras with showmanlike haste and began shooting extemporaneously–, or, "off the cuff.";view=1up;seq=161

  3. Stephen Goranson said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 11:57 am

    July 31, 1932. Times-Picayune [New Orleans], Section 2, p. 5, col. 1. Headline: Movie Formula Revived with Uproar Unknown to Silents.
    …."you never know where a picture is going these days"…."Right," he [a studio head] beamed,"it was shot right off the cuff every morning…isn't that phenomenal?" [The same paper has an iffy Sept. 1, 1929 use: "….I picked one off the cuff and gave it to him for free."–horse racing tip.]

  4. Stephen Goranson said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    July 17, 1927, LA Times, p. C9. Headline: What Will Academy Acheive? by Edwin Schallert:
    ….Some directors shoot from the cuff, and others want a script running into thousands and thousands of words.

  5. Alan Gunn said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 2:10 pm

    Maybe, but there are a couple of similar German expressions which seem not to have come from writing notes on shirt cuffs: "auf dem Handgelenk" and "aus dem Handgelenk," which would literally translate as something like "off the wrist" and "from the wrist." As I understand them (I don't know all that much German), the first of these means something like "with little effort" and the second is more like "without advance preparation." "Auf dem Handgelenk" seems much the same as the English expression "offhand," which also doesn't seem to have anything to do with writing on cuffs. I ran across these in Harry Kessler's diaries from sometime in the mid-1920s, which would make both expressions as old as the English "off the cuff." Any German speakers out there who know where these expressions came from? It's possible that the German and English expressions had different origins and have only an accidental similarity, but still, it would be interesting to know for sure.

    Also, Stephen Goranson's quoted passage doesn't seem to fit well with the note-on-the-shirt-cuff story.

  6. AB said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

    In Sweden when one does something off the cuff, or off the top of one's head, one does it på rak arm , with a straight arm. The (unsourced) explanation I've read is that something that can be lifted with a straight arm isn't very heavy.

    Bearing in mind this and Alan's German example, might the cuff in "off the cuff" be a body-part rather than a garment – a metonym for the wrist?

  7. raempftl said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    I am a native speaker of German and have never heard of "auf dem Handgelenk" as an idiom. "Aus dem Handgelenk" means "with little effort". Think of somebody throwing a ball with a little flick from the wrist instead of using the whole arm.

    The German equivalent for "off the cuff" would be "aus dem Stegreif" meaning litteraly "from the stirrups", i. e. without even getting off the horse. Usage started in the 18th cent.


  8. Alan Gunn said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    I seem to have misremembered what I read: a search of the Kindle edition of Kessler's diaries (1918 to 1937) comes up with only the "aus dem Handgelenk" version (three times). The context in all three cases seems to suggest effortlessness more than lack of preparation, though the two often go together, so It still seems to me that the German and English expressions could have a common origin. (Same for "offhand," which when followed by "remarks" or "comments" seems to mean much the same thing as "off the cuff.")

  9. blahedo said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

    I had not been previously aware of the phrase "cuff notes", but am now struck by the strong similarity of the visual form (at least in some fonts) to the (brand name) phrase "Cliff notes" (which should technically be "Cliff's Notes", although that's not how anyone actually says it afaik). I see that the originator of cliff notes was someone named "Cliff", so I won't try to claim that the phrase "cuff notes" was actually the sole origin, but it's really a remarkable coincidence, and I do wonder if the trademark was intended to evoke the older term.

  10. j a higginbotham said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 7:04 am

    How about these two from 1812 in Britain?

  11. Jeff Carney said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    ^ That paper is numbered 1812 in a series. It was published mid-20th-century.

    [(myl) Actually I believe 1812 is the date when the serial publication began — unfortunately Google Books is still prone to assign the date of the first publication in a series (like a journal or a series of proceedings) to all subsequent issues — and these citations might have any date up to the present day, and are certainly not likely to antedate this term.]

  12. Thomas Rees said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

    This is from the evidence presented to the Shawcross Commission on the press published in 1962 as a command paper numbered Cmnd 1812-1. The numbering of the documents presented to Parliament “at Her/His Majesty’s command” is interesting. They started in 1833 with bare numbers, then proceeded through the prefixes C, Cd, Cmd, Cmnd, and (since 1986) Cm. See

    [(myl) Thanks! So it's not the date when the serial publication started, but rather mis-analyses of the document ID.]

  13. j a higginbotham said,

    February 22, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

    Thanks Jeff and Thomas. I just looked at the small first page which appeared old. If I had read all the snippet, the "phone" might have rung a bell with me.

  14. mollymooly said,

    February 23, 2015 @ 6:54 am

    Is it a coincidence that early uses of "off the cuff" were in the film industry at a time when both film-stock and shirt-cuffs were made of celluloid?

  15. John Baker said,

    February 23, 2015 @ 10:16 am

    Some of this history had already been explored in 2012 in posts to the American Dialect Society listserv by Garson O'Toole,, and myself, I don't have time to summarize them right now, but anyone else who is so inclined is welcome to do so.

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