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When I come across idioms that are not transparent I try to find out what is behind such expressions. In the case of "to be off the wall" one does not see anything that might lead to the meaning crazy.

Has anyone an idea about the origin of this expression?

  • Related <filler> – SrJoven Feb 8 '15 at 12:57
  • Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 has: off-the-wall adjective 1. (off the wall when postpositive) ( slang) new or unexpected in an unconventional or eccentric way: an off-the-wall approach to humour Word Origin C20: possibly from the use of the phrase in handball and squash to describe a shot that is unexpected – Edwin Ashworth Feb 8 '15 at 13:02
  • @EdwinAshworth - That really might be an explanation with some logic. I've seen etymonline says: American student slang, from 1966. – rogermue Feb 8 '15 at 13:09
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    My point is that "bouncing off the wall" is a well-known metaphor commonly applied to people such as that hyperactive child. The mental image is not of a single bounce but of a ball repeatedly bouncing from one wall to the other in a small room (as the child will seem to do). – Hot Licks Feb 8 '15 at 14:55
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According to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang off the wall is an expression which may come from sports:

  • The phrase off the wall, meaning wild, crazy, or eccentric is first unambiguously attested to in F.L. Brown’s 1959 Trumbull Park:

    • We all said thanks in our own off-the-wall ways.

    • And:

    • Not that off-the-wall holyroller kind of clapping.

  • There is an earlier use from 1953 in the title of a blues tune by Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs. But as this tune is instrumental with no lyrics, the sense of the title is ambiguous. It may be intended in the sense of odd, or it may literally mean something taken down from a wall.

  • The originating metaphor is unknown, but it likely refers to some sport, a racquet-sport like squash, or perhaps baseball, where a ball may literally be played off the wall, often with wild and unpredictable bounces.

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

  • Bouncing off the walls? – ScotM Feb 8 '15 at 21:20
  • Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) does not indicate that the originating metaphor is likely a ball bouncing off a wall—that idea appears to be original to the person who posted the 2006 entry you quote above from WordOrigins.org. The closest thing to such a suggestion in RHHDAS is from an NYU student quoted in 1972 as saying that "off the wall for extra bases" is "even worse" than "off the wall"; but that same source also cites as alternative variants "off the ceiling" and "off the wall with a spatula," so the sports theme is not especially strong. – Sven Yargs Feb 8 '16 at 8:27
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To expand on my comment: A rubber room or padded cell is indicative of a place where one who might be prone to injure himself might be secluded. This would include those of altered mental states, including those who would be considered "crazy". Thus, the environment being padded means that one attempting to harm oneself would bounce harmlessly off the wall instead of collide with an unyielding surface.

This environment would not be considered necessary for the general populace.

  • Sorry, I didn't understand your first comment " related, filler". Your association is not bad! Do you really think this might be behind the saying? But I would note it as an interesting hypothesis, above all because the first mentioned explanations all say "probably". – rogermue Feb 8 '15 at 16:32
  • Related is a link to a search on rubber rooms. <filler> is because I didn't have enough characters worth putting in a comment. – SrJoven Feb 8 '15 at 16:35
  • Do I really think this is the source of the saying? Honestly, it's a better connection to "crazy" than racquet sports. – SrJoven Feb 8 '15 at 16:37
  • The connection to squash or other racquet sports makes sense to people who play those games, but aren't they a very small subset of the population? I'm having trouble seeing how a squash metaphor could gain such wide currency so fast (1959 is yesterday), so SrJoven's answer scores with me. – ab2 Sep 5 '15 at 17:45
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I relate it to the French expression: "faire tapisserie"= wallflower. People are rendered invisible or not interesting when being a wallflower (gender discrimination mostly). Therefore, if you are off the wall, you are visible and become interesting. Crazy in many ways means original, beyond the dull, mass, sheep-like, etc.

  • J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) offers some interesting (albeit tangential) support for your hypothesis that the phrase is connected to wallflower. I'll try to write up Lighter's coverage of "off the wall" in a separate answer shortly. But in the meantime, +1 to you for your suggestion. – Sven Yargs Feb 8 '16 at 6:36
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J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) gives as a first occurrence of "off the wall" in a slang sense this exchange from a 1937 scare film, cited (with interpolated commentary) in Michael Starks, Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness (1982):

After the usual prologue on the perils of marijuana, we find Lamont High school students Jimmy and Sally drinking in a local bar ("Beer 5¢"). "Oh, Jimmy—you don't love me. I'm off the wall." Evidently, Sally is trying to tell us that she is drunk.

"I know Sally, but I don't mind." "In the old days parents knew what their kids were doing evenings." "If my mother and dad had come to places like this, I wouldn't be here now." The rest of the gang, reportedly including Lucille Ball, is drinking, necking, and fighting, while being looked over by obvious older pusher types.

Lighter analyzes this excerpt as follows:

The sense of the bracketed 1937 quot[ation] is unclear; perh[aps] it implies "only a wallflower." Current meanings [of "off the wall"] are not attested before 1953.

The opening of Lighter's entry reads like this:

off the wall adj. odd or eccentric; crazy; (broadly) obnoxious, offensive, pointless, etc. Also as adv.

And Lighter's first two attested citations are as follows:

1953 in [Mike] Leadbitter & [Neil] Slaven Blues Records 201: Off the Wall [name of a song on Checker records—U 4348, listed as "Chicago, 1953"—by Little Walter & His Jukes] 1959 F[rank] L. Brown Trumbull P[ar]k 354: We all said thanks in our own off-the-wall ways. Ibid. 223: Not that off-the-wall holyroller kind of clapping.

Frank Brown, Trumbull Park (1959) actually has three instances of "off the wall," each time as a hyphenated adjective phrase. First:

Terry said:

"You can't beat the syndicate."

Seemed like Terry had to keep coming up with those off-the-wall remarks. I was getting sick of this cat:

"What goddamned syndicate?"

[Page 176]

And:

I don't know whose church radio program it was that was swinging so nice that January Sunday morning. I mean, organs and choirs and people clapping—not that off-the-wall holyroller kind of clapping, but that happy-in-time easy-going everything-together kind of clapping. Whosever church it was, it was going.

[Page 223]

And:

Arthur looked up and laughed sort of quick-like and pulled at his ear; and one by one the brave ones, the not-so-brave ones, the hip ones, the square ones, the men and women—one by one, we all said thanks in our own off-the-wall ways:

[Page 354]

The two 1950s citations suggest that the phrase may have arisen in African American slang before crossing over to white U.S. slang. I remember that "off the wall" was a popular term in the small east-coast college I attended in the early-to-mid-1970s—popular enough, in fact, that my friends and I had a routine where, whenever someone alluded to something or someone being "off the wall," we would immediately pretend to attach ourselves magnetically to the nearest wall by both hands and both feet, and proclaim that we were "on the wall."

In 1978, in law school in Texas, I encountered a related phrase: "off the page." Our torts professor told our class that in assigning marks for each answer on the final exam, he awarded 5 points for an excellent answer, 4 for a very good one, 3 for an above-average one, 2 for an average one, 1 for a below-average one, and 0 for an answer that was "off the page."

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner Dictionary of American Slang, first edition (1960) doesn't list "off the wall," but it does show that "off the wall" had plenty of company by 1960 as a phrase beginning with off and meaning "crazy":

off adj. Crazy; eccentric; loco. See off [one's] chump, off [one's] head, off [one's] nut, off [one's] onion, off [one's] rocker, off [one's] trolley.

These expressions have in common that the middle term is a possessive pronoun instead of the word the, but otherwise they seem quite similar to "off the wall." Wentworth & Flexner also cites "off the cob" (meaning "corny") from the 1940s. I have sometimes wondered whether "off the wall" was suggested by the sad fate of Humpty-Dumpty, but I've not found any support for that idea in reference works.

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Off the wall


The Phrase "OFF THE WALL" Where did it come from? In 1972 I was living in Chicago, walking down Garfield Boulevard with a close friend from Gary Indiana. I asked him a trick question. Then, I asked him; Do you know where I am coming from? He answered yes, but he really didn't. That's when I answered him "Off The Wall." Meaning "crazy, foolish, tricky, joking, or nonsensical. The phase exploded and caught on like fire. He took the phrase back to Gary Indiana with him. That's probably where Michael Jackson got it from. Now that's the honest truth. We still get a blast out of seeing how the phrase has evolved over the years.

AMERICA CAVER

  • This sounds like a quote from somewhere. Source? – AndyT Apr 5 '17 at 11:19

protected by tchrist Apr 5 '17 at 12:07

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