Example sentences:

  1. A television series that never came off (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  2. He tried his Chaplin impression, but it didn't really come off. (from Wiktionary)
  3. The match comes off on Tuesday (from The Century Dictionary)

Why come off equals take place, succeed in these examples?

To come means generally "to approach", while off has multiple meanings, but they are generally contrary to the sense of "approach". These basic meanings give no hint as to why did the sense of succeed develop.

The Century Dictionary (page 1120) lists the senses of

  1. To depart; move or turn away; withdraw; retreat. "We might have thought the Jews when they had seen the destruction of Jerusalem would have come off from their obstinacy"
  2. To escape; get free. "If they come off safe, call their deliverance a miracle."
  3. To emerge from some undertaking or transaction; issue; get out or away: as, to come off with honor or disgrace.

It lists the sense of "take place" only in position 4.

But the meanings of "to get away", "to emerge from some undertaking" seem to contradict the sense of "to take place", "to succeed". The television series in my example 1 have nothing to emerge from, it didn't even start.

What do you think about it? How did this sense develop?

(Without knowing its origin, one just has to memorise it with no apprehension as to why it means what it means.)

  • PS the exact meaning you refer to, is in the OED "come off 1 (of an action) succeed; be accomplished. • fare in a specified way in a contest: Jeff always came off worse in an argument. 2 become detached or be detachable from something."
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 11:51
  • @JoeBlow: The sense is listed in numerous dictionaries, I'm just curious how did this sense develop. It is so counter-intuitive. "To approach" + "OFF" --> "to succeed, take place". Especially considering the original sense of "to depart, to retreat". Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 11:54
  • 4
    The OED has another definition of come off: "to leave the field of combat". Its citations (17th century) include expressions like "come off with victory" and "come off losers". One can see how metaphorical uses of this definition could have evolved to the one you're wondering about. Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 12:09
  • @PeterShor - So, in the example with the television series, the "field of combat" is the preparatory stage, right? So the idea of launching the series entered this field of combat (entered the preparation\deliberation stage), but did not come off, meaning, it was slayed there. If that's how the sense developed, I guess I can imagine now the meaning. Because up to now the idiom seemed just a thing one should memorise despite it running contrary to logic. Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 12:26
  • 1
    @CopperKettle: at this point, the expression has completely lost the metaphorical sense of "field of combat" (assuming that was how it originated). And some of its current uses stretch the metaphor much farther than it probably would have been stretched three centuries ago. But yes, that's the right analogy. Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 12:34

1 Answer 1


"To come off" has multiple meanings, most dictionaries list more than ten different meanings depending on the area in which it is used. When speaking of theatre you can say "The play came (well) off, meaning it was a success. Sometimes it is a bit difficult to explain a semantic development, then it is only possible to use associations. Well, to come off in this usage reminds me a bit of shooting. A shot or the bullet can come well off/out of the gun or sometimes the bullet can explode in the barrel.

The other development of meaning, when speaking of a sports event, is in principle similar. "The match came off on Tuesday", meaning took place, can be understood when you think of "got started and finished". There was no hindering cause that prevented the match. Well, that's my best try to explain such tricky semantic shifts at short notice. Perhaps someone can do it better than I can.

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