The "off the cuff" mystery

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The other day, someone asked me about the origins of the phrase "off the cuff". I've always assumed that it had something to do with the old practice of writing informal notes on men's detachable (and disposable) cuffs. And the OED's entry agrees, glossing it as

off the cuff (as if from notes made on the shirt-cuff) orig. U.S., extempore, on the spur of the moment, unrehearsed

But as far as I know, the practice of wearing detachable (and sometimes disposable) cuffs ended by the time of the first world war or even before, while the OED's earliest citation for this idiom is from 1938:

1938 New York Panorama (Federal Writers' Project, N.Y.) vi. 157   Double talk is created by mixing plausible-sounding gibberish into ordinary conversation, the speaker keeping a straight face or dead pan and enumerating casually or off the cuff.
1941 Time (Air Exp. Ed.) 4 Aug. 1/1   Talking off the cuff to a group of civilian-defense volunteers he made them a little homily.
1944 Penguin New Writing XX. 130   In that scene, shot off the cuff in a shockingly bad light, there leapt out of the screen..something of the real human guts and dignity.
1948 Economist 3 July 17/2   Mr. Truman's off-the-cuff comment.

So I figured that the OED just hadn't researched the idiom adequately. But a fairly extensive search through various online archives only antedated the OED's citation by two years, to 1936:

The Google Ngrams plot shows origin in the 1930s, and adoption between 1945 and 1960:

My searches also informed me that the early uses of the phrase included not only that improvised-movie-making sense, but also the sense of alerting others to a random event, or perhaps enumerating a diverse list of events, presumably from notes jotting on one of those cuffs. Thus in November of 1942, Billboard began a regular column listing random events, under the heading "Off The Cuff". Here are (what I think are) the first two:

Here's some information about those disposable paper shirt cuffs, from Giles Slade, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, 2007:

What has been called "disposable culture" or "the throwaway ethic" began in America around the middle of the nineteenth century when a variety of cheap materials became available to industry. Innovations in the machinery of paper production, for example, made paper a practical substitute for cloth. The millions of paper shirt fronts (bosoms, as they were called), as well as the collars and cuffs that adorned nineteenth-century American men, owed their commercial success to this technological advance.

The beauty of these disposable products, as far as paper manufacturers were concerned, was that demand for them seemed endless. In 1872 America produced 150 million disposable shirt collars and cuffs. Men found paper clothing parts convenient because laundry services in those days were unreliable, expensive, and available mainly in large urban centers. America was still predominantly a rural culture, and before the advent of modern washing machines in the twentieth centruy, laundry was an onerous, labor-intensive task undertaken by women once weekly on Blue Tuesday. Single men simpy lacked access to professional or spousal laundry services. They bought replaceable shirt parts in bulk and changed into them whenever the most visible parts of their attire became stained or discolored.

And all the evidence that I can find suggests that the fad for disposable paper cuffs ended well before 1900. Thus "History Lesson: Glen Paper Collar Co. owners were inventors first", The Saratogian 8/24/2009:

During the 1870s, a peculiar clothing fad swept the country. Disposable cotton-based paper collars were introduced to the upper classes as a way of maintaining a fresh, white collar rather than attempting to clean soiled cloth collars.

Some of the first paper collars in the country were manufactured two miles north of Ballston by Lindley Murray Crane, a paper mill owner and holder of three patents. Henry Mann’s father also manufactured paper collar materials in nearby Factory Village for some years under the partnership of Mann & Laflin.

Medbery and Mann recognized the potential, and rented space at the Blue Mill to establish the Glen Paper Collar Co. In their first year, the partnership produced 9 million collars. Soon they occupied the entire building. In 1871, they built a five-story, 60-foot by 40-foot addition, reportedly constructed in 20 days. They rented the old Waverly Hall for use as a packing station and salesroom.

Shipments of collars increased. At its height in 1875, the factory was producing 21 million paper collars and 5 million paper cuffs annually employing 150 people, becoming one of the world’s biggest producers. […]

But the fad died out in the mid-1870s. In 1876 Medbery moved to Newburg, New York and became a member of the firm James A. Townsend & Co., manufacturers of writing papers.

This leaves us with four possibilities:

  1. Disposable paper cuffs remained in use, at least in certain groups, right up through 1950 or so;
  2. Movie directors, entertainment journalists, and politicians continued to write on their cuffs long after the cuffs ceased to be disposable;
  3. The expression "off the cuff" originated at some point around 1875, but managed to avoid appearing in print until 1936, and did not become common until the late 1940s, when the physical basis of the metaphor was long dead;
  4. The expression was born when the metaphor was already long dead.

My feeling is that (1) is implausible (2) is silly, (3) is unlikely, and (4) is weird.

So what happened?

Update — from W.W. Aulick, "The Theatre",  The Gateway ("a magazine of the times"), May 1913:

"Pop" Flannery, of the City News, found fault with one of the stage reporters because he made a pencil note on his cuff. "Not a bit like it," declared Mr. Flannery, "only a make-believe reporter makes notes on his cuff."

Master James Murray, who looks after the Evening Journal at the Courts Building, hadn't heard "Pop" Flannery's remark. Mr. Murray told the manager of the Astor–just in a friendly sort of way y'understand–that it was too bad one of the stage reporters hadn't been told to make a note or two on his cuff. "It would have been a realistic little touch, do you see?" pointed out Mr. Murray.

This suggests that in imagination or in reality, certain sorts of people continued to make notes on their cuffs long after the paper-cuffs fad had faded. Still, I rather doubt that this was a common real-world practice in the 1936-1950 period.

Update #2 — And, as Robert Coren points out in the comments, there's this scene from Modern Times:

Given how popular Chaplin was, this might well explain why the concept and the associated idiom rose to prominence in the ten or fifteen years after the movie was released.

In conclusion, as I've learned from the comments, detachable cuffs were used as note pads even when they were not disposable; and the practice of starching the cuffs of (white) shirts apparently made them suitable for note-taking even when the cuffs were not detachable. This helps us to bridge the half-century gap between the end of the disposable-cuff fad and the rise of the "off-the-cuff" idiom. Still, the idiom grew in popularity at a time (the late 1940s) when the actual practice of writing notes on cuffs must have been nearly dead, at best a memory for older members of the American population — or, perhaps more likely, an image from that Charlie Chaplin movie.


  1. Chris Brockett said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    The phrase in the intended sense had reached New Zealand by early 1943: "Meet Dr. RX Hope, the Baby Specialist and off the cuff lecturer"——-10–1—-2%22off+the+cuff%22–

    Papers Past, incidentally, is a great resource for English usage in early New Zealand.

  2. David L said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    Isn't it also a problem that "off the cuff" means spontaneous, as the LA Times says, whereas if you write something on your cuff for later use (as in cheating on an exam), you are being the opposite of spontaneous?

    [(myl) No — the idea is that you are speaking (or directing) from notes, rather than from a prepared text or a fully-written script.]

    That said, I have no insight into where the phrase might have come from.

  3. Darryl Shpak said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

    It seems to me that there's a fifth possibility: the suggested etymology is incorrect, and the origin of the phrase is from something other than writing notes on shirt cuffs. I have no theories as to what that might be, though.

    (I'm assuming there's evidence that writing notes on shirt cuffs was, in fact, something that people actually did…)

    Possibility (4) might have happened if the phrase "off the cuff" was a derivation of another cuff-related idiom. Even if the original idiom had become opaque due to the lack of disposable cuffs, it could still have been the inspiration for a new phrase.

  4. Andy Averill said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

    I found another example from 1936, in the Bulletin of the Michigan Dept. of Public Instruction:

    To construct a well-designed building, to build a beautiful car, to erect a sturdy bridge requires extensive planning. The teacher who tries to teach "off the cuff" is doing [end of snippet]

    As so often in the style of that time, the quote marks allow the writer to use a slang expression while still keeping it at arm's length. (Henry James was especially fond of that trick.) So it's quite possible that the phrase had been around for a long time in spoken English, but was avoided in publications. It certainly seems like slang was much more taboo in written English than it is today.

  5. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

    Could the metaphor have stayed alive until the thirties without being expressed in that particular phrase? In other words, could there have been a cultural memory of, say, after-dinner speakers reading their remarks from their shirt cuffs–preserved perhaps in cartoons or anecdotes–that someone in the thirties would have been able to refer to?

  6. Jan Freeman said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    A separate question: Is Lindley Murray Crane a descendant of Lindley Murray, the famous grammarian? (There seem to be lots of Lindley Murrays on the record, but I haven't found a link in a quick search.)

  7. YM said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    I always understood that if you weren't particular you could write things on your non-disposable cuff, in something washable, like pencil. To wit, this ad from 1916, which I found by searching GB for "write on the cuff".

  8. Andy Averill said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

    And PS, why assume that "off the cuff" was ever meant literally? Couldn't it just be that a when a speaker made off-the-cuff remarks, it was as though he was improvising based on a few quick notes he'd written down on his shirtcuff, without it being the case that anybody ever actually did that? In which case the cuff is purely metaphoric, and it doesn't matter whether it was detachable or not.

  9. Andy Averill said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

    PPS Today we would say "back of the napkin" in the same metaphoric way. Or "back of the envelope".

  10. David L said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

    The LA Times explains 'off the cuff' as meaning "spontaneous action, not financial credit" — implying (as Darryl Shpak suggests) that the phrase had some prior meaning that would have been more familiar to LA Times readers at that time. Did 'off the cuff' mean something like 'off the books' — a financial wangle to keep some expenditure hidden?

  11. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    I think the key to understanding this phrase comes from its antonym, "on the cuff," which predates it. See these quick examples–no time now to analyze further, but they should help:




    If there is such a thing as a note "on the cuff," speaking "off the cuff" would mean without the benefit of such notes. Perhaps someone could get access to the book from the first link to help track this down….

    [(myl) "On the cuff" is a separate idiom, glossed by the OED as "orig. U.S. on credit". Its origin presumably also reflects the idea that the merchant or bartender makes a note on his cuff, to be transcribed later into a ledger, or perhaps paid off at the end of the evening.

    The second and third of your examples are pretty clearly instances of this "on credit" or "for free" meaning. The first one does refer to the more general practice of taking notes on one's cuff, though. ]

  12. MonkeyBoy said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    While paper cuffs, collars, and bosoms were a fad I have been unable to find when they stopped being made and used for situations where they truly were needed. I recall somewhere reading that middle-class men in Pittsburgh had to change their collars 3 times a day because of all of the "coal-dust" (aka. coal soot) in the air, and that "paper collar" was slang for management in dirty industries. Since Pittsburgh really didn't clean up its pollution until after WWII it is possible that they used paper cuffs up until then.

  13. E Morris said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    I'm with Andy. I don't think it was ever to be taken literally — just meaning someone speaking without serious preparation, as if (but not really) from quick notes jotted on his cuff (or, a la S. Palin, in his palm). I don't think the phrase presupposes a detachable cuff.

  14. boris said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

    Well, since "on the cuff" seems to be a variant of "on the house" (that I've never heard of before, but has apparently originated at least as early as "off the cuff"), I would not be shocked to find that "off the cuff" could be its opposite in some way (paid up front maybe?)

  15. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    Also, the idea of notes on the cuff was known in 1909, when H.G. Wells published Tono Bungay, which contains the following anecdote:

    Each gentleman wrote the name and address of the other on his cuff, and they separated in a mood of brotherly carelessness, and next morning neither seems to have thought to rescue his shirt from the wash until it was too late.

  16. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    Oops that's Tono-Bungay.

  17. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    Further update: a Google Books search for "on his cuff" in publications before 1935 reveals many examples of notes so written, so clearly the practice was familiar from literary sources if not widespread in the 1930s.

  18. Henning Makholm said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    Possibly (or possibly not) related: Danish has an idiom "to shake ___ out of the sleeve", meaning to produce ___ extemporaneously, where ___ is some kind of creative product: a plan, an idea, an illustrative example, a cover story…

    Here there is no cuff openly involved, but the word for "sleeve" unambiguously identifies the kind of sleeves found on upper-body clothing.

    There some kind of allusion to card cheaters and stage magicians hiding items in sleeves, strongest in negative contexts ("I cannot just shake a plan for this situation out of the sleeve") — but when people do shake things out of sleeves the implication is that those things were (brilliantly) made up on the spot.

  19. Neil Kelley said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    I think (1) has some weight behind it. From about the same era as YM, here is a note from a 1911 issue of Popular Mechanics detailing a removable celluloid tablet that could be attached to the cuff to "reduce the laundry bills of men who have contracted the habit of making notes on shirt cuffs." A book from 1933 and another from 1949 make reference to cuff notation in their titles. A google books search for "on his cuff" turns up several more references to the practice, mostly from the early 20th C.

  20. Jamie said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

    I wonder if the idiom could have been kept in use in Hollywood with the arrival of the talkies: actors not used to having to lean lines may have written notes on their shirt cuffs. Also their regularly dealing with journalists might have been a factor as well.

    @Bruce Rusk: Ah, that explains why the LA Times article, "Directors turn back …", includes an explicit note that the phrase is not referring to finance. That puzzled me.

  21. Chris Brockett said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    Is this originally a movie industry term, perhaps? I've just stumbled on similar usage "from the cuff" in 1941: 'the shooting is more or less "from the cuff"'——-100–1—-2%22from+the+cuff%22–

    [Don't have time to pursue this further now. Others are welcome to follow up.]

  22. Robert Coren said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    of course there's the famous scene from Modern Times(1936), in which Chaplin, briefly employed as a singing waiter, writes the lyrics on his cuffs (or, actually, his girlfriend writes them there), and then promptly loses the all-too-detachable cuffs, requiring him to improvise French-sounding gibberish.

    [(myl) Though I've seen Modern Times, that scene did not stick in my memory. Given how popular Chaplin was, this might well explain why the concept and the associated idiom rose to prominence in the ten or fifteen years after the movie was released.]

  23. Chris Brockett said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

    From the Bulletin of Copyright Office, Library of Congress, 1936

    It was what we called " shooting from the cuff." We had a scenario room where this group that I have mentioned would meet and discuss a story, and particularly with reference to " The Freshman ", that is the way we built the story of " The …

  24. John Baker said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    Interesting. I've posted some thoughts on ADS-L, archived at The term can be antedated in the movie-making context at least to 1931, when it was used to refer to the director shooting scenes each day that the writer finished the day before. A 1932 newspaper column makes the connection to shirt cuffs explicit. I also note that it's quite common for metaphors to achieve popularity – indeed, as far as we can tell, for them initially to emerge – only after the literal thing to which the metaphor refers has passed out of use.

  25. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    »Danish has an idiom "to shake ___ out of the sleeve",«

    Same in German.

  26. Gene Callahan said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    I think the Chaplin scene is pretty good evidence for what was meant. While I never saw any real person write notes on his cuff, I have memories of seeing it several times in movies and TV. Lucy repeatedly yanked the ball away from Charlie Brown in the comics, leading to popular expressions employing that image, but I certainly never saw any real world person do this.

  27. jk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

    More evidence of a film industry origin in a search of Cleveland Plain Dealer archives. The earliest references, all from the 30s, are to movies — indeed, a movie reviewer's column was titled "Off the Cuff."

    There's this from 1932: "… the most expensive picture made on the lot was virtually being "shot from the cuff" as we say in Hollywood, since so many of the arranged scenes didn't suit les Barrymores."

    Perhaps a telling anecdote, 1929: "Raoul Walsh, after mulling over the possibilities for Victor McLaglen's next picture … finally got the right idea as he was flying back … and hurriedly jotted it down on the cuff of his white shirt, the front of the shirt, and a blank check inside his helmet intended to pay for the ride. He had just room for a complete synopsis of 60 words, but if he'd been wearing one of those new-fangled, sleeveless polo shirts, half of the story would have been lost to posterity."

  28. David Morris said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

    The second meaning of 'cuff' is (n) a light blow to the head / (v) to strike someone that way – quick, presumably unplanned, hopefully memorable to the recipient.

    There is also 'cuffs' as an abbreviation of 'handcuffs' – someone 'in the cuffs' is highly constrained in his/her freedom, whereas someone 'out of the cuffs'/ 'off the cuffs' has freedom to act however s/he likes.

    Both unlikely, I must admit. I haven't had time to research either of those. (It's actually class time already, but no-one has turned up yet, so I'm just filling in my time!)

  29. ShadowFox said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

    A couple of notes.

    1. "»Danish has an idiom "to shake ___ out of the sleeve",«
    Same in German."

    Uhm… English has "up his sleeve" (as in, "he's got another trick up his sleeve"), which, to my mind, is related to the Danish and German expressions a lot closer than "on/off the cuff".

    2. The LATimes piece specifically implies that the phrase "off the cuff" is film-making jargon. Perhaps I misread that piece, but that suggests something other than a standard shirt cuff, unless costume cuffs came in cardboard a lot longer than they did in normal dress practice. Come to think of it, that's a distinct possibility–play and movie costumes always had different dynamics than contemporary clothing. One possibility is that the phrase came from theatre, where an actor might have been given a re-written portion of the dialogue at the last minute and had to read it "off the cuff". This is a reference to the same cuff, but a different interpretation than constructing something from notes made on the cuff. The fact that this is theatre/cinema practice is, in this case, the key. Another possibility is that "cuff" was film-making jargon for some piece of equipment having to do with spontaneity. That supposition is totally off the cuff.

    3. As far as financial practice is concerned, consider the fact that accountants and clerks used to wear separate "over-sleeves" … er… cuffs. These were largely used to prevent dipping the actual clothing into ink or smudging ink with a sleeve. So could these have played a role as well? I'm not even sure what the official terminology on these was–they survived into the 1950s, I believe, but have long since disappeared.

  30. jk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    And to the question of when detachable collars went out of fashion, there are many ads in The Plain Dealer for "collar and cuff boxes" well into the teens. They do die out postwar, with just one apparently joking reference in 1927 and this from 1921, in a story suggesting useful Christmas gifts:

    "… men's sewing kit, tie rack, collar and cuff box, eversharp pencil …"

    In 1925, the paper reported that a local official was the last detachable cuff wearer. That led to a follow-up story with a few men added to the list of diehards. "One Man Soils Seven Pairs a Week and Is Proud of It," said the headline.

    Detachable collars may have had a longer life; there are many references to collar boxes well into the 1940s. Although the term seems to have widened to cover the style of the box (rounded or half-round sides), it's clear some of them were intended for actual collars.

  31. John Burgess said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    The problem may come from taking too narrow a view of the disposable cuffs and collars by tying them to paper. Celluloid collars and cuffs were in widespread use through the 1920s; the collars are still available.

    Celluloid even had an advantage over paper in that it would permit clean erasures and could be cleaned a few times rather than just being tossed away.

  32. AG said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

    Shot in the dark here, as it were… but could it be a billiards reference, to shooting a casually-aimed shot?

  33. jk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

    February 1931, Coshocton, Ohio, Tribune: "His name is Gregory LaCava. … He shoots movies from the cuff, as Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle used to do, when they'd take a company of actors on location — and hope for inspiration."

  34. AntC said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    @AG "… billiards reference …"

    Isn't that "off the cush"? The phrase appears (or so I thought) in Lewis Carroll The Hunting of the Snark, one of the crew being a Billiard-marker. (But I must admit search tools aren't finding it.)

  35. jk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

    July 31, Uniontown, Pa. Morning Herald: "Personal Notes Off the Cuff Of the New Yorker … Personal notes off a New Yorker's cuff."

    November 1932, Frederick, Md. Post: "Off the Cuff … Notes from a convenient cuff"

    I suspect "off the cuff," referring to notes scribbled hastily on the most convenient surface, collided with "shooting from the cuff," a movie-specific term referring to working either completely without a script or using lines added by the cast to the writer's script, to produce the modern use of off the cuff to suggest an impromptu act. Both phrases probably came from the same physical act.

  36. jk said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

    One last note: I find uses of "ad lib" in the sense of an improvised remark during a performance at least as early as 1920 in The Plain Dealer files. I wondered why the movie industry developed what would seem to be a parallel term.

    Could it be that "ad lib" was felt to refer only to coming up with lines in the moment, while "from the cuff" suggested that the lines, or at least the outlines of the scene, were thought up before the performance, but not in time to be rehearsed?

  37. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 16, 2012 @ 11:29 pm


    Your memory does not entirely deceive you. The phrase "off the cush" is not in "The Hunting of the Snark," but it can be found in an additional "fit" written by James Albert Lindon, first published in 1962 in Martin Gardner's annotated edition of the poem:

    The Billiard-marker cajoled him with nods,
    He spun him a kiss off the cush;
    He played him a thousand up, giving him odds
    Of nine hundred, not barring the "push."

  38. Victoria Simmons said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 1:47 am

    Like John Burgess, I had the thought about celluloid collars and cuffs.

    I can also see scenarios where notes are attached to an attached cuff or hidden in the cuff. Googling seems to suggest a number of cases where speeches or notes are hidden in the cuff. Perhaps the phrase means NOT making use of these, but speaking truly extemporaneously.

    I don't think "off the cuff" and "ad lib" need to be interpreted as having different meanings in order to co-exist.

  39. Howard Oakley said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 2:03 am

    I think that the correct answer is a combination of 1 and 2.
    Detachable cuffs and collars were still in use long after the Second World War. When I joined the Navy in 1977 I was issued with shirts that had detachable collars, and I think that detachable cuffs had lasted well into the 1960s (I can remember seeing such shirts and cuffs at around that time).
    These were not intended to be disposable, but as they were boiled and starched, even quite heavy soiling – such as the addition of notes using water-soluble ink – was removed in the laundry process. And at that time most people still used fountain pens, and a lot of ink for non-archival purposes was not 'permanent' as it frequently contaminated hands and clothes.

  40. Sidney Wood said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 4:16 am

    People born in the 1860s, who saw loose cuffs being used, would still have been alive in the 1930s and into the 1940s, writing all those quotes given above.

  41. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 4:17 am

    1902 Aug. 25 (unconfirmed snippet, British Newspaper Archive) Newcastle Courant. "… he tore off his cuff and wrote a few words upon it. To be given to Miss Rachel Herbert: A sad thing has happened to me, darling; I am wrongly accused of a wicked …" [link]

    Hopkinsville Kentuckian., March 03, 1903, Page 4, Image 4. "He took off his cuff and wrote a note on it and threw it below. He was rescued just before the roof fell in." [link]

  42. Tom Ball said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 5:03 am

    New York bookies in Damon Runyon's day used to take bets "on the cuff." This idiom post-dates most of the earliest origins of the term that have been noted but was quite common in the 20s and 30s.

  43. Mark Etherton said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 5:23 am

    Howard Oakley must be right. When I was at school in the 1970s, our uniform included detachable stiff collars, and it is not difficult to find shirts with detachable collars (stiff or soft) in the UK today.

    I have not come across detachable cuffs, but cuffs do not need to be detachable to be starched: stiff (aka boiled) shirts worn with white tie have the front and cuffs starched.

    There is another example of cuffs being used to take notes in one of the stories in Stephen Leacock's Literary lapses, published in 1910: in 'Fifty-Six' the owner of a Chinese laundry describes his relationship with a former customer:

    ""When I first knew him," Ah-Yen went on, "Fifty-Six was a student at the university. This, of course, I did not know for some time. I inferred it, however, in the course of time, from his absence from town during the four summer months, and from the fact that during the time of the university examinations the cuffs of his shirts came to me covered with dates, formulas, and propositions in geometry. I followed him with no little interest through his university career. During the four years which it lasted, I washed for him every week; my regular connection with him and the insight which my observation gave me into the lovable character of the man, deepened my first esteem into a profound affection and I became most anxious for his success. I helped him at each succeeding examination, as far as lay in my power, by starching his shirts half-way to the elbow, so as to leave him as much room as possible for annotations."

  44. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    googling reveals a NY Times story from Sept. 15, 1911 discussing "rumors of a revival of detachable shirt cuffs," so without getting into the question of the extent of survival into the mid-20th-century that's further evidence that it wasn't just an 1870's thing. Detachable collars for dress shirts remain to some extent in use (at the higher end of men's haberdashery) in England to this day in a way they are not in NY, so perhaps detachable cuffs might have lasted there longer – but if this is a primarily U.S. idiom that doesn't really help solve the timing mystery.

  45. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    ShadowFox makes and interesting observation regarding accountants' sleeve protectors. It may be worth looking into the origin of the name: "cuff accounting," for a simple system of bookkeeping. The term may derive from the unsophisticated approach of keeping a rudimentary ledger on a cuff (or similar inappropriate journal). And when was the earliest reference to such a method?

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 9:55 am

    Trivia probably not related to the mystery: When I visited West Point in 1980 or '81, the uniform jackets shown here had cardboard cuffs and collars that made it look as if there was a dress shirt under the jacket. I don't know whether they were detachable, and a cadet caught writing a note on one would probably have been forced to do 100 pushups or something.

  47. bob edgar said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    The phrase off the cuff is believed to have originated with waiters who were among the first to use their shirt cuffs as notepads to take orders or to calculate the tab. Hollywood directors were the next perpetrators of the practice, carrying notes to actors about the scene on their shirt sleeves. Impromptu speaking has likewise become known as off the cuff. The speaker is pictured as hurriedly jotting down noteson his cardboard-starched shirt cuff during the meal and delivering them afterwards from an arm's-length note card.

    Off the Cuff
    What to Say at a Moment's Notice
    by Anne Cooper Ready

    Collars and cuffs were made to be removable from 1860s through to 1930s. Because they wore under shirts the only contact places of the skin and shirt were at the collar and cuffs.

    At the end of last century it was common for waiters and barmen to write their orders and accounts on their starched white cuffs.
    This habit was taken, years later, by after-dinner speakers who also used their cuffs as notepads. They would write ideas that occurred to them during the meal and include them, unrehearsed, in their speech.

    This seems to be the origin of the expression “off the cuff” applied to remarks spoken without being practised or planned in advance.

  48. Trip Volpe said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    This is perhaps just a random thought, but the occurrence of the phrase "shooting from the cuff" to me suggested a man hunting or shooting skeet and taking a casual and unconcerned aim by resting his shotgun against the cuff on his left wrist.

    It certainly suggests the requisite easy and unrehearsed attitude — a fellow shooting this way is either confident in his ability to hit the target without preparation, or doesn't particularly care what he hits — and it doesn't require anachronistic shirt-cuffs.

  49. tsts said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    Not an expert, but I would guess that "off the cuff" has little to do with people writing on their cuffs. Probably entered English from another language, maybe through immigration.

    As several people have pointed out, there are similar expressions in Danish and German referring to sleeves. Moreover, there is a German expression "aus dem Handgelenk" (literally "out of" or "off the wrist") which is often translated as "off the cuff" (see The idea being that something is done without preparation, similar to a manual task that one has done so often that no thinking is required.

  50. tsts said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

    In fact, the references to movie-making might support my conjecture. Basically, "point and shoot" without thinking much, just muscle memory in the wrist. (Though I guess cameras back then were probably the size of a refrigerator, so not sure that would work.)

  51. Joel said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 7:04 am

    My partner trained as a theatre director in Sydney, Australia a decade ago. From her teacher she inherited the practice of writing notes on her cuff during rehearsals. Perhaps option (2) is not so silly.

  52. Garson O'Toole said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 7:21 am

    In the domain of moviemaking the expression "shoot from the cuff" was used. This phrase seems slightly older in the movie domain than "shoot off the cuff" mentioned above. The film was created without an advance script. The director relied on improvisation and on an incrementally constructed script.

    Here is one cite in 1927 and two in 1929 that help to explain the phrase. It may be relevant to the evolution of the phrase "off the cuff".

    Cite: 1927 July 17, Los Angeles Times, What Will Academy Achieve?, Page C9, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

    [Begin excerpt]
    Some decision should be arrived at for a practical plan for a scenario. There seems to be no accepted form at this time. Some directors shoot from the cuff, and others want a script running into thousands and thousands of words.
    [End excerpt]

    Cite: 1929 March 10, Los Angeles Times, Soundies on Sound Basis: "Shooting from the Cuff" Thing of Past by Philip K. Scheuer, Page C11, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
    [Begin excerpt]
    They used to "shoot" silent pictures from the cuff, as they called it. In other words, a director with little or no script to guide him would start grinding away on the opening sequence of "Dreadful Daughters" at 9 o'clock on the morning of September 1 because exhibitors had been promised delivery of a movie of that name on October 15, and a promise was a promise. The fact that no one, the director probably least of all, knew whether "Dreadful Daughters" was to reveal Sadye Le Fevre in the arms of Tom, Dick or Harry in the final fade-out, never made, any difference. What were continuity writers and gagmen good for, if not to figure that out when the time came?
    [End excerpt]

    Cite: 1929 March 10, New York Times, Desert Springs Stirs Reporter to Poesy by Chapin Hall, Page 55, New York. (ProQuest)
    [Begin excerpt]
    The "beautiful but dumb" little girl has had her day, and is taking a business college course, while the director who "shot from the cuff" is either unlearning his trade or passing on.
    "Shooting from the cuff" means making up the plot as the picture progresses. Some of these have gone into the last reel with no one, least of all the director, knowing just how he was going to get out of the mess, but confident that the continuity department would somehow solve the problem.
    [End excerpt]

  53. Mark F. said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

    This reminds me of "the whole nine yards," which, as I understand it, grew rapidly in popularity in the sixties without anyone knowing the metaphorical basis of the idiom. One of the popular explanations, that it refers to 9-yard-long belts of ammunition for bomber machine guns, has been discounted because the expression didn't surface in print for a couple of decades after WWII. Perhaps late-blooming idioms are a natural thing?

  54. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 18, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

    Mark: WWII explanations for "the whole nine yards" become more plausible as antedatings continue to be found. We now have evidence for the phrase back to 1956 — see my Word Routes column here.

  55. Graeme said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 12:58 am

    Much more common are notes on the hand. But 'back of the hand' would never catch on because the phrase is haunted by a reverse meaning ('something terribly familiar').

    And I guess though the hand predates the cuff – starched or paper – the biro didn't. (Presumably you need a 6B pencil to write on your hand; or a very viscous fountain pen ink)

  56. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Taboo initials, language peeves, and more | Wordnik said,

    August 24, 2012 @ 8:57 am

    […] Russian; Geoff Pullum considered one “legitimate” adjective; and Mark Liberman tried to solve the mystery of off the cuff. Victor Mair ordered up some more Chinglish menu items (one spiced broccoli is better to die to go […]

  57. Larry Vigus said,

    December 1, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    You are all over thinking it. If you know what "on my tab" means in a bar then you know what "on the cuff" meant. It was common for a waiter or barkeep to keep running totals in this way. A pencil mark kept track no matter how intoxicated the customer got.

    A bartender or waiter wouldn't write on their hand. If they did you would know they weren't in the habit of washing it.

    The seemingly opposite phrase didn't mean the exact opposite, but came from the same sort of record keeping practice. If someone said something was "off the cuff" it meant without notes; without consulting the record.

    My grandfather was a machinist during and after WWII. His work was high tolerance with the most expensive metals. I watched him work in his private shop in the 1950's. When consulting blueprints he would make notes on his left shirt cuff and use the measurements on his cuff to calibrate the lathe or other equipment with a small metal rule and calipers. His pencil went behind his ear and his notes stayed on his cuff so they were both always with him. Grandmother complained about the laundry but she always provided fresh starched white shirts for him every day.

  58. Brad Crum said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 10:02 am

    Here's my theory: "Cuff" probably comes from Coiffe or Coif (headdress or cap) Cuff \Cuff\, n. [Perh. from F. coiffe headdress, hood, or coif; as if the cuff were a cap for the hand. Cf. {Coif}.] [1913 Webster]

    So, I'm thinking the derivation is older and may refer to coming off the top of the head–which is another expression we use for extempareneous speech.
    The expression "to cuff" someone usually means to hit them sharply in the head. So, they may be using "cuff" as a stand-in for "head"

  59. RJ Matson said,

    October 9, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

    I always thought "off the cuff" came from the German phrase "auf der kopf" which means, literally, "of or by the head," but is an idiomatic expression that would translate into English as "off the top of my head." If I say something "auf der kopf" I speak without notes and without having rehearsed and memorized the speech I am giving. Speaking "off the cuff" is the same as speaking "off the top of my head."

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