“Off The Cuff”: Throwaway lines

Off The CuffA Google search assures us that the oft cited phrase, off the cuff, means “without preparation, impromptu, ad lib.”

At Toastmasters we call off the cuff speaking: Table Topics. People die a thousand deaths waiting for their turn; well I do. Improving at Table Topics; off the cuff speaking; is my challenge. Magic happens when a speaker gets it right; when they deliver a structured speech in the allocated one minute, on topic, that resonates with the audience. You feel the atmosphere in the room shift; there is a lightness, a connection between speaker and audience. It is my observation that the speakers who do well at Table Topics are the ones who are most comfortable in their own skin; relaxed within themselves. They are therefore not worried about making a fool of themselves and instead free their mind to focus on the topic, nothing else gets in the way.

Taken literally, the adage off the cuff implies at some point in time, speakers wrote their bullet points on their shirt cuff. Really? Glad I wasn’t doing the washing. To keep our Napisan bills down, today we jot down our bullet points on a napkin or on the back of our hand or on our mobile device. There is always “Death by Powerpoint” as a last resort where you share your off the cuff bullet points with the entire audience.

Q: So when did speakers actually start writing on their shirt cuffs?

A: An excellent piece of research detailing all the facts can be found at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4130. My paraphrased summary of this research follows:

The most logical period in history where this could have started appears to be during the latter half of the nineteenth century during the Industrial Revolution when the “C” word –  Consumerism – was taking off. Paper disposable cuffs were all the rage. The fad ended during the 1870s.

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 centres. America was still predominantly a rural culture, and before the advent of modern washing machines in the twentieth century, laundry was an onerous, labour-intensive task undertaken by women once weekly on Blue Tuesday. Single men simply 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 discoloured.
Giles Slade, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, 2007

The unsolved mystery is that the phrase off the cuff did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (and therefore in common-speak) until 1938, some fifty years after paper disposable cuffs were no longer available. So why would a phrase like that appear if the habit died out five decades beforehand? Where was the link, the catalyst?

This timing is supported up by using the obscure free research tool: Google Books n-gram viewer, to show the use of this particular phrase, off the cuff, in books for the period 1800 to 2008. The graph indicates a steady growth in the use of this phrase started from the mid-1930s onwards.

Q: Does this imply speakers kept writing on their material shirt cuffs after the disposable paper shirt cuffs became extinct?

A: Possibly because paper disposable cuffs were replaced with detachable starched cloth cuffs. Anecdotal evidence tells stories of speakers still writing on these starched removable cuffs. It’s amazing what you will do when desperate, can’t find a piece of paper and you’re on stage in 1 minute! What about the palm of your hand? Less washing repurcussions.

Modern Times is a popular 1936 Charlie Chaplin movie. There is the famous scene 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. Charlie Chaplin was very popular so it is possible this scene would have influenced the population to reach that tipping point where the phrase off the cuff found its way into the OED two years later in 1938.

Off the cuff implies there is some planning behind what you are saying; that you have made some bullet points somewhere to keep you on track; that you have some structure to follow. I would suggest that today you use technology. Avoid writing these bullet points on your shirt cuff, especially if you are not the one doing the washing!

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