Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Off The Cuff

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 4, 2011

When you spontaneously say or do something without preparation or rehearsal, this is what’s meant by saying or doing something off the cuff.

The AFP Global Edition published a news story on September 8, 2009 entitled “Barack Obama Is Warning About Stupid Facebook Posts.”  The story dealt with President Obama’s advice to a group of high school students about the consequences of social networking sites and the prospective employers who view comments posted by job applicants.  He shared the following with these teenagers:

Obama’s advice about the perils of modern technology were born of bitter experience, as he has fallen victim to the YouTube age of modern campaign politics several times himself when off-the-cuff remarks or events have shown up on web videos or blogs.  At one stage, his 2008 election campaign was rocked by inflammatory past speeches by his former pastor Reverence Jeremiah Wright which were posted on YouTube.

Just a little over a year before that, Larry Richter wrote a news story for the New York Times entitled, “The Candidates Speak Off The Cuff, And Trouble Quickly Follows.”  The opening paragraph stated:

At this rate, both John McCain and Barack Obama may want to rethink their fondness for town-hall-style meetings. Both have embroiled themselves in controversies this week as a result of departing from scripted campaign speeches and speaking off the cuff.

On December 2, 1950 the News And Courier newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina ran a news story on Page 4 entitled, “Confusion Over The Bomb.” The story began with this revelation:

Mr. Truman’s irresponsible remarks about use of the atomic bomb, first announced off the cuff at a press conference and later partially retracted or “clarified” in a White House statement, may have placed the country in grave peril.  It should be obvious that if Russia thinks the United States intends to use the bomb, the Kremlin might very well try to beat Mr. Truman to the punch. 

Now back in 1882, the tune for “America, The Beautiful” is said to have come to Samuel Ward while he was on a ferryboat trip from Coney Island going back to his home in New York City.  After a relaxing summer’s day, he found himself inspired.  Worried he might forget the tune in his head, he asked fellow passenger and close friend, Harry Martin, to give him his shirt cuff so he could jot down the tune.  There are many who claim that this is the first use of the expression “off the cuff” both figuratively and literally.

Now as lovely as that story sounds, it is not the origin of the expression “off the cuff.”  In fact, Gustave Flaubert (1821 -1857)  wrote a letter to his mother in 1850 apologizing for writing to her off the cuff.  In return, his mother wrote to him while he was in Constantinople, praising him on the tone and style of the letters he had written and sent to her that year, reassuring him that she was unaware they had been written “off the cuff.”

But it’s still unclear how the expression “off the cuff” came about in the first place.  Some say that bartenders used to keep track of patron’s tabs and of the bar prices with special markings they made on the starched cuffs of their shirts.  Supposedly, at a glance, bartenders could quote a price or tally a tab seemingly ‘off the cuff.’  While that certainly sounds plausible, it brings to mind a couple of problems: what happened when the bartender was ill for the day or another bartender took over for the balance of the day?  So, one can discount that explanation entirely as well.

It’s a fact that back in the day, men’s formal white shirts collars and cuffs were made of celluloid and were occasionally used as improvised notepads in dire circumstances.   Mrs. Hannah Lord Montague of Troy, New York invented the detachable collar in 1827 as a way to solve the ongoing difficulties she was experiencing with her husband’s “ring around the collar” problem.  It didn’t take long for her invention to catch on but it did take until the mid-1800s for cuffs to be made similarly to the collars. 

This seems to jive with Gustave Flaubert‘s use of the expression “off the cuff” which implied his words were easily cast off just as the new-fangled collars and cuffs could be cast off — and new ones put on — by the wearer.

Idiomation was unable to find a published version or mention of cuffs that could easily be written on prior to the invention of the cuffs thanks to Mrs. Hannah Lord Montague.

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