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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.

False etymologies

Dude, my cousin’s sister knows a guy who was there.

Dear Word Detective: What do you call it when a word is given an etymological “explanation” that is false? I once heard a story that a medieval monk met the king’s hunting party and was accidentally knocked over by a restive horse. Since the monk was wearing only his robe (ONLY his robe) and since the robe flipped up, the monk was “em-bare-assed,” thus giving the modern word. I know this isn’t true, but what do you call the process? — Tredzwater.

Hey, I call it comedy gold, assuming you miss Art Linkletter. And besides, how do you know it isn’t “true,” whatever that means these days? Maybe it has a higher kind of truth, the This American Life kind. Incidentally, not to prolong our national angst attack over last year’s Mike Daisey/TAL dust-up, but I have a question. Would folks find the madcap memoiric stylings of TAL-fave David Sedaris (and his imitator Augusten Burroughs) so funny/freaky/fascinating if they knew going in that 90% of that stuff literally never happened? Just sayin’, as they (anachronistically) say on Downton Abbey.

The story you heard about “embarrass” is, of course, not true in any useful sense of the word “true.” Our English “embarrass,” which first appeared in the late 17th century, was adapted from the French “embarrasser,” literally meaning “to block or obstruct” (“en,” on, in, plus “barre,” bar). To “embarrass” in English originally meant to literally impede the movements or actions of someone or something (“The state of the rivers … will embarrass the enemy in a considerable degree,” 1803). But it was also used to mean “to put someone in a difficult or perplexing condition” and “to cause a person to feel awkward or ashamed,” which is the usual meaning today. The phrase “an embarrassment of riches,” by the way, does not mean that the Kardashians feel a bit sheepish about their excesses. Since the 18th century it has meant the state of literally having more money than you can spend (i.e., your spending is “blocked”).

The process that produces silly stories like the one you heard about “embarrass” is often called “folk etymology,” but it’s more accurately called simply “false etymology.” True “folk etymology” is a linguistic process whereby an unfamiliar word or phrase (e.g., “asparagus”) is transformed into a new word or phrase that may not make more sense, but at least sounds more familiar (in this case, the dialectical term “sparrowgrass”). Folk etymology often produces words that persist long after the “original” word is obsolete. “Cattycornered” (or “kittycornered”), for example, was originally “catercornered,” “cater” being an adverb meaning “diagonally” (so a building “catercornered” from another would sit diagonally across an intersection from it). But “cater” (from the French “quatre,” four) was sufficiently mysterious to enough people that they substituted “kitty,” perhaps imagining that cats like to sit at an angle to each other. The transformation stuck, and if today you were to use “catercornered” in directions to a tourist, they’d probably wander off and ask someone else.

The sort of ludicrous fable you encountered explaining “embarrass” is far from uncommon, and exhibits many of the characteristics of a classic “urban legend.” There’s the setting in a distant, ill-defined past (“medieval” is second only to “old sailing ships” in this regard),  the role of royalty or aristocracy (“a king,” “the “King,” any old king will do), sex, nakedness, or other “inappropriate” behavior, and sudden exposure (literal in this case). Urban legends of this sort are sometimes likened to extended jokes concocted for the amusement of listeners (in a bar, for instance), but I think they rightly belong to the venerable folk tradition of telling “tall tales” in the spirit of Paul Bunyan and Casey Jones. They’re fun to hear, but should not be passed off as serious history.

Packing room

At Downton Abbey, they use it to store abandoned sub-plots.

Dear Word Detective:  In the National Park Service description of the homes at the Kennedy Compound in Massachusetts  ( is the line “The Joseph P. Kennedy home, […] On the second floor are six bedrooms, a sewing room, packing room, and four servants’ bedrooms.” Can you define the term “packing room”? A room to store luggage with a work table? A room so filled with “treasures” that everything is packed in? — Gary.

“Treasures”? I suspect that somebody’s been watching that “Hoarders” shows on A&E, where the afflicted packrats invariably refer to their mountains of useless junk as “treasures.” I actually watched this show for a while, but I got bored. The problem is that the show’s producers want the hoarders to throw stuff away themselves, which leads to hours of tedious arguing and death threats. My approach would be to lock the loons in the back room, throw everything into a dumpster, and then let them keep whatever they can fish out in ten minutes while wearing oven gloves and a blindfold. Problem solved.

After doing quite a bit of digging, I think I can safely say that “packing room” means different things to different people, and that what you mean by “packing room” is, to a large extent, dependent on your personal rung on the social ladder.

“Packing” is, of course, a noun most commonly meaning “the action of packing,” although “packing” can also refer to the sort of things used in packing something. The verb “to pack” actually came from the noun “pack,” which wandered into English in the 13th century from Germanic roots carrying the general sense of “bundle.” Today we use “pack” the noun in dozens of senses in three general categories: “a bundle or package” (e.g., a “pack” of cigarettes), a group or set (a “pack” of wolves), or various uses conveying some sense of something having been shoved together (as in an arctic “ice pack”).

“Pack” as a verb has two main senses: “to form into a pack,” which would include everything from “packing” clothes in a suitcase to “packing” a jury with sympathetic jurors, and “to leave,” drawn from the act of departing with a suitcase “packed” with one’s clothes, etc. (“Out I say, pack out this moment,” Goldsmith, 1766). Today the latter sense is often seen in the form “to send packing,” meaning “to banish or eject” or “to pack it up” or “pack it in,” meaning to stop doing something and/or to leave.

“Packing room” seems to have two uses. The first, and by far the more common, is simply “a room, in a factory, shop, etc., where goods or products are packed and prepared for shipment or sale.” Thus a shoe factory in the 19th century would have a separate “packing room” where the shoes were inspected, put in boxes, etc.

The second use of “packing room” is the one you found in that article, that of a room in a very large house (or other large building, such as a museum or library) used primarily for storage of objects or incidental supplies not currently in use, such as extra furniture, seasonal decorations, art work, etc. A packing room may also be used as a receiving room for items coming into the house or building. The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia actually awards a “Packing Room Prize” every year to the portrait most favored by the packing room staff who receive, store  and mount the paintings in the gallery.

So while the factory sort of “packing” room would be analogous to “packing” something for shipment, the “packing room” of a large house such as that at the Kennedy Compound would employ “packing” more in a “shove stuff in together” or “pack things away” sense. But remember, it’s not hoarding if you have servants to dust it.