I recently saw a cartoon in which President Obama in a physician’s costume followed by an elephant and a buffalo in a suit is lifting up the one end of a surgery trolley marked “Big pharma and insurance lobby” and throwing a patient woman labeled “US Public” down on the floor with the caption “Single-payer healthcare is off the table.”

I consulted English dictionaries to make sure of the meaning of “off the table,” though it is too obvious from the picture.

Interestingly, none of COD (10th ed.), OALD (2000 Press), Collins Cobuild ALD (2003 ed.), Oxford American Dictionary (1980), Webster New world Basic Dictionary of American English (1998) carries “off the table,” while they include “on the table,” “at the table,” and “under the table.”

However, Wiktionary defines it as “beyond consideration,” and Urban dictionary does as “no more discussions about it.”

I checked Google Ngram and found out that both “on the table” and “off the table” have been used from the long time ago, but the incidence ratio of the use of “off the table: 0.0000376%” is disproportionately low as compared with “on the table:0.0007989%” at the point of time, year 2000.

Do you have any idea about why “off the table” is not included in most of all reputable dictionaries I referred to, while other “at ..." "on ..." and "under the table” are included as idioms?

The only reason I can think of is that all the dictionaries I consulted were bought 10 to 15 years ago, and thus outdated.

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    Off the table : It has been decided that a particular factor is not negotiable in a debate or bargain thus it is considered *off the table.*collinsdictionary.com/submission/6220/Off%20the%20table
    – user66974
    Sep 8, 2015 at 6:21
  • It scarce usage might be related to the difference between (AmE vs BrE) of to table : In parliamentary procedure, a motion to table has two different and contradictory meanings : The British meaning has the sense of the table as being an active work bench, with the topic being the centre of attention, considered and discussed by all until it can be resolved, at which point it is taken off the 'table'. ./.
    – user66974
    Sep 8, 2015 at 7:01
  • ./. This comes from the use of the term to describe physically laying legislation on the table in the British Parliament; once an item on the order paper has been laid on the table, it becomes the current subject for debate. The American sense is that the table is like that of a shelf, archive, or long-term storage device, where the topic has been disposed of by sending it to the 'table' and leaving it there. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_(parliamentary_procedure)
    – user66974
    Sep 8, 2015 at 7:02
  • Winston Churchill relates the confusion between American and British military leaders.: The enjoyment of a common language was of course a supreme advantage in all British and American discussions. ... *The British Staff prepared a paper which they wished to raise as a matter of urgency, and informed their American colleagues that they wished to "table it." To the American Staff "tabling" a paper meant putting it away in a drawer and forgetting it. A long and even acrimonious argument ensued before both parties realized that they were agreed on the merits and wanted the same thing.*
    – user66974
    Sep 8, 2015 at 7:14
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    @Josh61 After a lifetime working with Americans it is the first time I had ever realised this. So when we say we will table something, to an American it means we will shelve it? In that case the OP's cartoon is using it the British way, isn't it?
    – WS2
    Sep 8, 2015 at 7:35

1 Answer 1


As you note the phrase "on the table" (in all uses, including both idiomatic ones and literal ones) is far more common that the phrase "off the table" (likewise in all senses). Here is the Ngram chart for the period 1700–2005 for "on the table" (blue line) and "off the table" (red line):

Used idiomatically, "on the table" goes back several centuries. Christime Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this entry for the phrase:

on the table 1. Up for discussion, as in There are two new proposals on the table. {Mid-1600s} 2. Postponed or put aside for later consideration, as in When they adjourned, three items were put on the table until the next meeting. {First half of 1700s} The table in both idioms is a figurative conference table.

Evidently, "off the table" when used idiomatically, indicates the negation of "on the table" definition 1 above. In any event, Ammer doesn't have an entry for "off the table." I suspect that the reason she omits this phrase is that it is a much more recent and much less common idiom that "on the table."

Although Google Books matches for "off the table" do indeed go quite far back in time, the idiomatic use of of "off the table" is surprisingly recent. Moreover, the earliest instances that do occur are concentrated in U.S. government lingo. In Google Books search results for "off the table" for the period 1942–1996, all seven matches for the phrase in its idiomatic sense are from U.S. government reports, and only two of those are from farther back than 1992. The earliest match is from Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Administration of Ronald Reagan (March 21, 1985):

If Senator Dole takes Social Security cap on COLA off the table and you can agree with the deeper defense cut and a lesser domestic cut, do you see the makings of an agreement there, or do you think you're too far, apart to resolve that issue without the Social Security element in it?

And the next-earliest is from "Impact of the President's 1987 Budget: Hearings Before the [House] Committee on the Budget," (1986) [combined snippets]:

Mr. BAKER: You're talking about non-Social Security spending now?

Mr. SLATTERY. That's correct. But the President says, "Take it off the table," so I'm just saying, if you do take it off the table, that's the reality that you're looking at. You're looking at a 5-percent spread in the balance.

The five matches from the 1990s appear in similar contexts. It seems clear to me that the idiomatic use of "off the table" first came to public notice as government slang in the 1980s. In the past decade, I believe, it has become much more common; but it may still be viewed primarily as bureaucratic, legislative, and diplomatic jargon.

In any event, as the 2013 edition of Ammer's book suggests, the reason you can't find an idiomatic entry for "off the table" in reference works probably isn't that the books you consulted are too old, but that very few such books cover the phrase even today.

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    The question still remains: why did the expression took so long (on the table is from Mid-600) to become idiomatic.
    – user66974
    Sep 8, 2015 at 7:18

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