Paper Linen and Crib Notes -
A Well-Planned History of "Off the Cuff"
A Well-Planned History of "Off the Cuff"
The idiom, “off the cuff,” meaning “without preparation . . . as if from impromptu notes made on one’s shirt cuffs,” [i] dates to the 1930s. Mark Liberman, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, pushed the earliest known use of “off the cuff” back from 1938[ii] to 1936; but wondered how or why the expression came into being decades after detachable paper cuffs had long fallen out of fashion, and with no apparent immediate impetus.[iii] Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times, released in February 1936 (which features a scene in which Chaplin’s Tramp writes notes on his cuffs), notwithstanding; he could not find a satisfactory reason for the decades-long gap between paper-cuff fashion and the “off the cuff” expression; none of the seemingly plausible explanations made sense. “So what happened?”[iv]
Nothing happens in a vacuum. When “off the cuff” first appeared in 1936, cuff-reading and cuff-writing imagery (and actuality) was well established; and the idiomatic expression, “cuff notes” (sometimes “shirt-cuff notes”), had been in continuous use for at least fifty years. The form of the expression may have been new; but it was successor to a long, rich tradition:
The Paper Collar. – Useful and Ornamental. Clara (reads). “Excuse Dearest, the Paper upon which I write – I have not my desk with me, so I send you these few hurried lines on one of my collars.
Punch, Volume 40, April 27, 1861, page 169.
That cartoon may be one of the first references to writing on cuffs; it was published shortly after advances in paper technology made paper collars and cuffs more acceptable to the fashionable set. A newspaper article about the new technology, from only a few weeks earlier, wondered what was next – paper handkerchiefs?:
Paper Linen. – The London Lace Paper Company, in the Strand, are bringing out a new invention, called paper cloth, for ladies’ collars, cuffs, and similar articles. The Critic, in noticing it, says: - “It is extremely beautiful, and so very cheap (say 3d a collar) as to threaten to drive crochet-work entirely out of fashion.” The material, if it be like some we have seen, consists of a very slight fabric of woven stuff, felted, as it were, with linen or other fibrous shreds, such as paper is made of; it is a sort of shoddy-linen, in fact, if we may so describe it; and has all the appearance of starched linen at a very little distance; looked at closely, however, no texture like that of woven linen appears. Men’s collars are sold at 6d. a dozen by a stationer in High Holborn. Each, it is said, will last a day or two, and be “reversible” even then. The washerwomen and laundresses may look out for squalls. We should not wonder to see Japanese paper handkerchiefs next in hand.
The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, Maryland), April 16, 1861, page 1.
|The Alleghanian (Ebensburg Pa), April 25, 1861, page 2.|
Detachable collars are said to have been invented by Hannah Montague of Troy, New York in 1827. Paper collars (and presumably cuffs) were available by 1840:
Mrs. Gordon Smythies, Cousin Geoffrey, the Old Bachelor, Volume 1, London, R. Bentley, 1840, Page 109-110.
A comment published in 1857, however, suggests that these early, paper collars were considered low-class:
And with them came minstrels of all kinds, Germans in a dirty gang blowing blatant trumpets, and scrubby Italians grinding organs, and vagabonds with blackened faces and paper collars, with banjos, and other miscreants with hurdy-gurdies, and ballad-singers with furious shouting, and an idiot with a cracked fiddle.
Punch, Volume 32, January 31, 1857, page 43.
Further improvements in paper linen technology, however, helped keep the fashion alive in to the 1870s. The new paper fashions looked as good as the real thing, and were cheaper to replace than the real thing cost to wash:
Ruin in the Washtub. – Though we know it not, there is undoubtedly a rising imminent among the clear-starchers, ironers, laundresses, and all the rest of the hangers-on of the wash tub; for since the days when Punch made merry on the introduction of paper collars, and hinted at the convenience of Edwin penning a note to his Angelina upon a cuff, they have been not only coming more into vogue, but have been improved to such an extent that not only do they baffle the closest scrutiny, but the wearer obtains compliments for the get-up of his linen.
We have been favored by Mr. Tann, of Holborn, with a box of samples, containing specimens of the perfection to which paper can be brought, that are simply admirable. A collar, cuff, shirt front or tie is taken up, and to all appearance it is composed of the finest linen, starched and ironed to that perfection only seen on the new article of apparel when fist purchased, and never again encountered on its return from the wash. There is a fine web of the fabric imitated to perfection, the whiteness is perfect, there is an elasticity and toughness, and for those who approve of fancy cambric, there is all that can gratify the eye in plait and fold.
But, after all, why should paper not become popular? Did not our friends, the Japanese, use it when they had colds, and do not our friends the French use it extensively? The main reason for its popularity should be, though, the fact that one can wear paper collars and cuffs, ever new, for the same cost of the washing of linen. We can always have the latest fashions, changing daily if we please; and, what is most pleasant of all, deceive those who cast inquisitive eyes upon the state of those garments for whose purity we are dependent upon Madame la Blanchisseuse [(French, for Washerwoman)]. – Foreign paper.
Juniata Sentinel and Republican (Juniata, Pennsylvania), April 12, 1876, page 4.
But despite the perceived benefits, fashions change. By 1912, paper collars had all but vanished:
Paper collars have gone, too, although they are yet made, in ever decreasing quality, and may be found on the shelves in small stores in the depths of the Ozark region, far from the railroad. But in all of Kansas City there is not one.
“Paper collars?” said the manager of a department store “You mean celluloid collars. You’ll find them in the gents’ furnishings.”
“No. I mean paper – p-a-p-e-r – paper collars.”
“Who the dickens ever heard of a collar made of paper?” he asked.
But forty years ago nearly everyone wore paper collars and paper dickies and paper cuffs. They were made of stiff paper the thickness of cardboard, covered on the outside with a thin layer of linen and stamped in the making to imitate all linen with imitation seams. . . . To dress up you first put on the paper dickie, made in imitation of a linen shirt front, with a hole punched in the top to hitch it to the collar button and another hole in the center into which to screw the shirt stud.
The Hartford Republican, April 26, 1912, page 2.
Although the fashion disappeared, it left behind the image of writing on cuffs; and even the practice of writing on cuffs, which survived at least into the 1930s. I guess there may still be people today who write notes on their shirt, if they need to, but I’ve never seen it.
The practice of writing on – and reading from – cuffs also spawned the idiom, “cuff notes” (sometimes, “shirt-cuff notes”), which was still in use in the late-1930s when “off the cuff” was born. Depending on the context, “cuff notes” referred to actual notes written on cuffs, any short notes written quickly or casually, or pre-written reminders accessed when needed.
Students at West Point wrote notes on their cuffs (I’m sure that never happens today):
On several occasions I resented the insults heaped upon me, and was at once invited down to “Fort Put” (where all differences were settled) to fight it out. I never went. After a week’s hard study I passed my “mental examination.” I can’t imagine how it was done, but the notes on my cuffs, boots, and even fingernails no doubt helped me through. In fact I am positive of it.
The Princeton Union (Princeton, Minnesota), July 30, 1879, page 6.
Political economists jotted down “cuff notes”:
The next citizen who stopped to look on was a political economist, who spoke three times a week on suffering Ireland and ameliorating the condition of the working masses. His soul sickened at the injustice of society, and he used to say, pausing long enough to make a shirt cuff note on the fearful increase of crime among children, he too went off shaking his head.
The National Tribune (Washington DC), March 25, 1882, page 2.
Students in China had their own versions of “cuff notes”:
“Sleeve editions” of the classics are produced by Chinese printers for the use of candidates at competitive examinations, and are, in fact, a further development of the “cuff notes” not unknown in this country. All honest boys would be ashamed of them.
The Boy’s Own Paper, Volume 4, Number 208, January 6, 1883, page 240.
Wannabe poets wrote on their cuffs; or tried to:
Cuff Notes. By Captain Collar.
By Jove! That idea of Matthew is great – fine fellow, Arnold, but rather like an old-fashioned fruit pie at times, more crusty than fruity – writes on his cuffs whilst travelling on the cars – and poetry too! Happy thought, I will try it; perhaps the afflatus will come to me in that way . . . . . Have tried the cuff-writing business – partial success. The first time I tried to write the pencil went off at a tangent and after describing a given line, stuck in the back of my hand; strong poetic feelings rose in my mind just at that moment. I could have written a war song with several whoops in it, but refrained from so doing, finding that there was more point in my pencil than in my poetry . . . . Second attempt – better – succeeded in dignifying my cuff with a fine assortment of Arabic and Syrian characters which imparted quite a learned bearing to me. This, however, was not poetry, which my soul was longing for. I therefore endeavored to sweep them out of existence by the aid of a piece of India rubber, only to convert my former resplendent white cuff to a color five shades remote from that of a sweep’s brush. I will not be deterred; perseverance, a great trait in my character, has conquered.
Grip, Volumes 22-23, December 13, 1884.
An artist’s quick sketch might merely be a, “shirt-cuff note”:
The book contains altogether a hundred and forty-eight illustrations, some of them mere thumb-nail sketches; other so slight in their suggestiveness that we may venture to call them “shirt-cuff notes.”
The Magazine of Art, volume 11, page 137, 1888:
Zoo visitors took notes on their cuffs:
Mountain climbers might take “shirt-cuff notes” about their adventures:
As I climb solely for the love of the thing, being neither an observant nor scientific mountaineer, and (low be it spoken here) even neglect the first duty of taking anything beyond the barest ‘shirt-cuff’ notes, I have found it somewhat difficult to put this paper together.
Alpine Journal, Number 133, page 145, August 1896.
A humor piece from 1905 illustrates some of the dangers of letting your “cuff notes” get into the wrong hands; out of context. An upstanding writer going about his usual business made several notes on his cuffs: the name of the person who lent him bus fare; the date and time of a meeting with his publisher; the amount of money he needed to deposit in the bank to cover a check; a gift idea for a friend’s daughter’s wedding; a plot idea to improve his new book; a reminder about an upcoming sport-shooting outing with friends; and an appointment for a police detective to show him a seedy crime scene as part of research for his next book. His wife became irate when she discovered the notes:
M. Fortescue, 106 North Bank, St. John’s Wood.
Wednesday, 4 p.m. sharp.
Find twenty-five pounds Thursday, without fail.
Diamond ring not later than Friday.
Must kill one of Edith’s children.
Get gun before 26th.
(Opium den) Tower Hill, Monday, 9:15. – Boston Herald.
The Minneapolis Journal, July 11, 1905, page 14.
“Cuff notes” and “shirt-cuff notes” were also used figuratively:
In the dialogue, Schnitzler sets for the that sixth sense of those who write realistic poems and stories – the sort of sense that permits an author to take shirt-cuff notes of any life experience, even though the subject under scrutiny be one bound to the writer by close bonds of blood or affection.
New York Times, January 12, 1908.
The book is composed of an abundance of practical information on building, illustrations of some very ugly villas designed by the authors, a few good designs by other hands, a chapter of shirt-cuff notes on the history of architecture, and a preface by the Duke of Argyll.
The Spectator, Volume 107, October 14, 1911, page 598.
Politicians were known to read speeches from their cuffs:
Oratory in the House Comes High
Washington. – The craze for statistics has invaded the most sacred of precincts. It has attacked, assaulted, indicted and convinced the most parlous of statisticians themselves – the members of congress.
Proof, by statistics furnished right on the floor of the house, that the speeches there cost more than the total amounts of many of the items under discussion has left the entire aggregation in chronic terror that, when their most flowery orations are being speeded on their way to the morgue of the Congressional Record, some treacherous antagonist may arise, reverse his cuffs and read off evidence that the honorable gentleman’s silence would be golden.
. . . The state department had an item of $237.66 for horseshoeing. Missouri representatives declared they were from the “show me state.” The secretary of state couldn’t show the shoes, which had been worn out. There was a quarter of an hour of oratory when up rose a representative from Pennsylvania. “Gentlemen,” he said, “It costs $10,000 an hour to run this house, and we have already spent $2,500 worth of words trying to skin a $237 item. Let’s quit.”
Le Meschacebe (Lucy, Louisiana), March 18, 1911, page 3.
In 1935, about one year before “off the cuff” is first attested, sportswriter Henry McLemore, tossed his notes for selection of an All-American team into the laundry:
All-Star Choice “All Washed Up”
McLemore Desperate as Laundryman Erases “Cuff Notes” on Shirts He wore to Nine Games.
Urbana Daily Courier (Urbana, Illinois), December 2, 1935, page 8.
“Cuff Notes,” was a regular column in the magazine, The Film Daily, as late as 1945
"Off the Cuff"
The earliest known attestation of the idiom, “off the cuff,” in its now familiar form, is from 1936:
Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1936 (Mark Liberman, The “off the cuff” mystery; Language Log, August 16, 2012). The tone of the headline suggests that perhaps, possibly, the expression, "shoot off the cuff," had been common in the early days of film, yet avoided being seen in print, because its use was confined to the sub-culture of filmmakers.
It is not impossible for idioms to go unreported for so long. The expression, “The Whole Nine Yards,” for instance, was long thought to have originated in the 1960s. Recent discoveries pushed back the earliest known use of the expression into the first decade of the 1900s. Similarly, the earliest known use of “New York Minute” was long believed to have been in the 1950s, but it is now known to have been used in 1870. Perhaps someone will dig up some new sources.
Liberman’s article includes several other early examples of the idiom, and a Google Ngram illustrating the idiom coming to life in the late 1930s, increasing in frequency of use through the 1940s, and becoming fairly widespread by the 1950s. The long-standing, and continued, use of cuff-writing metaphors and idioms, as well as the actual practice of writing on cuffs, may explain how an idiom based on nineteenth century fashion might emerge in 1936.
But nothing can explain the genius, or serendipity, that created the idiom in its current form. Perhaps someone just threw it out there; “off the cuff.” For whatever reason, it has survived the test of time.
Within hours of posting this article, Professor Liberman posted a link to it on Language Log. Within hours of his posting on Language Log, Stephen Goranson, a frequent contributor to the American Dialect Society's eMail Discussion List, posted comments on Language Log listing examples of "off the cuff" antedating Professor Liberman's 1936 example. He listed two examples of shooting "off the cuff," from the early 1930s, and an example of shooting "from the cuff," from the late 1920s. All three examples relate to the film industry; consistent with my hunch about the 1936 headline from the Los Angeles Times, mentioned above.