Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

  • Archives

  • Pages

  • Subscribe

  • Meta

Off The Hook

Posted by Admin on April 2, 2022

Imagine this scenario: You are in a room when someone says or does something wrong, unlawful, awkward, or unpleasant. No one calls that person out on what has been said or done. Everyone has let that person off the hook. Yes, when someone is let off the hook, they are free of blame or trouble that might have otherwise come from their actions.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: In rap culture, off the hook means something that is exciting, out of control, or that has been extremely well executed, and is usually in reference to a performance or party. Most people, however, do not use this idiom in that sense.

For example, on 16 April 2019, the Hartford Courant newspaper reported on Hartford’s $573 Million dollar city budget which included funding a tree planting program, a rodent control program, increased school funding, more police officers, and more. The newspaper reported the city was both off and on the hook.

Hartford is off the hook in terms of paying back money the city borrowed for infrastructure projects and other reasons because of a deal struck two years ago where the state agreed to pay off the city’s $550 million in general obligation debt.

The city is on the hook for payments related to the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park, which cost nearly $72 million.

All kinds of people from the very poor to the very powerful have been let off the hook over the years. In Volume 1 of “The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Reaffirmation Act of 1987: Committee on the Budget” it was reported that when Amendment No. 631 was being discussed that Senator Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. (April 3, 1930 – December 12, 1998) used the expression his comments.

Mr. President, I just want to say in the same vein that my distinguished colleague from North Dakota has asked about the $150 billion. I think that we should look at why the administration would support the Domenici version. I think it is because it tends to let them off the hook on the deficit.

On 31 July 1987 in “The Increase in Statutory Limit on the Public Debt – G-R-H” Mr. Johnston began with commenting on the amendment proposed by Mr. Gramm et al and what he felt the amendment was intended to do.

What I find is that this amendment really takes the White House off the hook. It is the take-the-White-House-offthehook amendment, or you might call it the sweep-it-under-the-run amendment, or you might call it pin the tail on the Democrats.

Later on, Senator Ernest Frederick “Fritz” Hollings (1 January 1922 – 6 April 2019) from South Carolina was reported as saying to the Presiding Officer, Mr. Breaux.

Arriving here on the floor, I listened to the Senator from Louisiana saying we are letting the President off the hook.

I am astounded. Of course, I’ve been trying to get him on the hook. If it were possible, I would have long since done it.

I thought we found a way last June when we had the House-Senate conference on the budget. The distinguished Senator Louisiana agreed to the conference report. We had to voice vote it late that evening. The Senator from Ohio, Senator Glenn, and I, paired on the floor there around midnight, objecting because the assumptions, the economic projections were all kiltered in favor of letting the President and the Congress off the hook.

Truth be told, the senators made quite a bit of use of the idiom which, of course, is how politics happens it would seem.

The 5 May 1947 edition of Life magazine published an article titled, “The Racing Racket” written by well-known and respected New York newsman Earl Brown (1903 – 1980). The focus of the article was on how the only winners when betting on horse races were the track-owners, crooked horsemen, and grafting bookies. It even stated that political machines and police officers protected bookies from the law, and track officials looked the other way when the public was robbed on fixed races. They weren’t pointing fingers only at New York, but Chicago and Kansas City as well as other locations around the U.S.

Occasionally all of a bookmaker’s customers, acting on mass instinct, will bet on the same horse in a race. Or some wealthy customer, feeling a strong hunch, will place a bet of gigantic size. Or a crooked horse-owner or jockey will overload the book with bets on a “Sure thing.” Whenever this happens, the bookmaker stands to be wiped out at one blow if a certain horse wins. Some way or other he has to get off the hook by “betting off” some of the money he holds.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Virginia native Earl Brown became a political activist, and was known for his battles with legendary Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Before entering politics, he was the managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and a Life magazine editor.

The Trial of Mary Dugan” was made into a movie in 1929, but before that it was a successful Broadway play about a Broadway showgirl charged with murder in the knifing death of her wealthy lover. Her brother Jimmy is a newly licensed attorney who defends her. The Time magazine review of 20 February 1925 implies the idiom has related to fishing.

The Trial of Mary Dugan —A blooming blonde from the Follies wriggles OFF THE HOOK of murder in the first degree.

While it became more and more difficult to find published examples of the idiom, it was found in a number of newspapers in August of 1909 in article about an unnamed London music hall belle who had successfully “landed” a mature wealthy nobleman and who, at about the same time, had sued a music hall manager for non-payment of wages. She won her case against the music hall manager, and to add insult to injury (or so she hoped), she sent a nice selection of congratulatory telegrams to the music hall manager.

Some of the comments were “Good for you, old girl” and “Congratulations on your splendid haul!” One telegram event stated: “Don’t let him off the hook.”

As an added note, the music hall manager left it up to patrons of his establishment to determine if the telegrams regarding the engagement kerfuffle was about her professional or matrimonial engagement. Unfortunately for him, the article advised readers there was another action for damages against the manager pending.

Idiomation found a great many articles in newspapers from the 1890s about ships and whales being found off the Hook, meaning Sandy Hook in New York state.

Idiomation also found that off the hook should never be confused with off the reel which means something completely different but which many also assume is an idiom connected to fishing. Neither of these idioms are.

According to the “Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases” compiled by Professor of English Literature in the Imperial University of Japan and Scottish author, James Main Dixon, M.A. F.R.S.E. (1856 – 27 September 1933) and published in 1891, to be off the hook meant to be in disorder or flurried.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: James Main Dixon was the secretary of the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo (Japan) from 1879 to 1886, and a professor of English at the Imperial University of Japan from 1886 through to 1892.

He then moved on to become a professor of English literature at Washington University in St. Louis (MO) from 1892 to 1901, and in 1902, he was made Chairman of the Library and Museum Committee of the Burns Cottage Association for the St. Louis World Fair that year. From 1905 through to 1911, he was a professor of English literature at the University of Southern California. He also became the editor of West Coast Magazine in 1908.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: His sister, Mary, married Scottish physicist and mathematician Cargill Gilston Knott (30 June 1856 – 26 October 1922) who became a Fellow of the Royal Society, Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and President of the Scottish Meteorological Society.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: Knott’s Equations in geophysics are named after Cargill Gilston Knott and describe the partition of energy between reflected and refracted seismic waves.

Being on one’s own hook meant to be independent, and to hook it meant to run away.

Somewhere between 1891 and 1909 off the hook took on a new meaning. However, by 1909 it did mean what we understand the idiom to mean in 2022. Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to the turn of the century — around 1900 — for the meaning of the idiom to have changed and for the change to be accepted by society in general.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 
%d bloggers like this: