offset (n.) = 1550s, "act of setting off" (on a journey, etc.), from off + set (adj.).
Meaning "something 'set OFF' against something else, a counterbalance" is from 1769; the verb in this sense is from 1792.

Abbreviate 'something' to 'sth'. 1. What does the prefix off signify?

  1. What imagery can explain off ? Envisage an unbalanced scale like:

enter image description here

Then balancing demands decreasing Work or increasing Life: but how can either be sensed as off?

  1. Isn't off redundant? Doesn't 'to set sth (something) against sth else'
    = 'to set sth off against sth else' ?
  • Hello again—I see you have changed your username. Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 5:02

1 Answer 1


Here, the effect of "off" in "offset" is largely serving the role of a preposition: it describes a spatial relationship. The relationship is that you are arranging two items or concepts so that they balance each other out.

The spatial relationship implied by offset is frequently figurative, not literal. For instance, when you offset a debt by paying it back, you're usually not literally putting money on a scale with your debt on one side and your payments on another. But conceptually, that's what you're doing -- canceling them out so that they balance, or at least diminishing the effect of the first object.

What does the prefix off mean here?

One note: Generally an English speaker would not necessarily think of "off" in "offset" as a prefix, but rather as just a syllable that forms a part of the word.

  • +1. Thanks. Can you please explain more about the imagery or metaphor behind 'off'? If I imagine offsetting X against Y as balancing X and Y both on a scale, then where does the preposition 'off' enter?
    – user50720
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 4:10