Face-off means: (ODO)

  • (chiefly North American) A direct confrontation between two people or groups: last night’s vice presidential face-off.

  • (Ice Hockey) The start of play, in which the puck is dropped by the referee between two opposing players.

The term comes from hockey and refers to the action at the beginning of a game as shown in the picture:

enter image description here

Face-off: (Etymonline)

  • also faceoff, 1893 in sports (hockey, lacrosse, etc.), from verbal phrase in a sports sense, attested from 1867.


While a confrontation face to face is quite evident from the action described, from which its figurative meaning, what does off refer to in the original meaning of the sportive context?

  • 1
    In a comment under @Rathony's answer, I mentioned that the starting positions in hockey are much more like a stand-off than in other sports, several of which begin with an -off of some sort. Field hockey matches used to begin with a ritual bully-off involving the tapping of sticks; I've just remembered that those single-sided sticks have a 'face'.
    – JHCL
    Oct 14 '15 at 12:28

Not addressing the -off part directly, but face-off in hockey comes from its relative, lacrosse. The OED's first citation is from 1889:

1889 Appletons' Ann. Cycl. for 1885 520/2 A goal may be scored within a minute's play from the face-off, or it may require half an hour's struggle.

I found several antedatings in 1886, the earliest from August 1886.

First, Harper's Young People (24 August 1886, vol. 7, no. 856, p.684):

When the ball is started, all the players, with the ex- ception of the goal-keepers, should be paired off all over the field, each man close to one of his opponents. If the possession of the ball is disputed by the two players who “face off,” let the others approach near them, but not near enough to interfere with their movements. They will each seek to “ tip" the ball with his stick or foot to some friend who has thus approached, and he will have a much better chance of securing it than if he had blindly rushed in and entangled himself in a “scrimmage.” Of course a brilliant dash in between the two players will sometimes secure the ball, but wait until you see the chance. Don’t fight for the ball blindly as if with your eyes shut. Use both eye to see and brain to calculate, and just at the right moment act with all the courage and strength that you have.

Interestingly, the second talks of a proposed rule change to replace the face-off.

Outing : Sport, Adventure, Travel, Fiction (August 1886, vol .8, no. 5, p.581):

A new rule has been proposed in the United States Convention, which was received with some favor, and is worthy of consideration. At present, the opening play of a game, from the "face off" often results in an undesirable scrim- mage. This is true even when the game is being played by the best Canadian teams. It is a bad impression to give, as a first one, to an audience. By abolishing it, the " face off" and all its finesse (for it has something of skill in it), can be retained to be used in case of fowls, etc., during the game.

  • 1
    I've sent these antedatings to the OED.
    – Hugo
    Oct 14 '15 at 18:23
  • Interesting findings, from the second extract it appears that "face-off" was used as an idiomatic expression, rather than "off" meaning "start", or it was just a jocular reference..what do you think?
    – user66974
    Oct 14 '15 at 18:37
  • I think both are still referring specifically to the start of the game, with much the same meaning as in hockey.
    – Hugo
    Oct 14 '15 at 19:06
  • 1
    Another early match is from the New York Tribune of October 3, 1886: "Boston Gets the Lacrosse Cup."
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 14 '15 at 23:10

"Off" as an adjective has the following meaning in Wiktionary:

6.Started on the way.

"We are off to a good start."

In a kick-off of (association) football, it means:

the opening kick of each half of a game of (association) football.

In a tee-off of golf, it means:

to drive from a tee, to begin, start

"Off" in all 3 examples (ice hockey, soccer, golf) can describe a start in a sense that a puck or balls should be moved off its original position in order to initiate the games:

Two players face each other. Then a referee drops a puck and they start to play in ice hockey.
One player kicks a ball and they start to play in football.
One player drives a ball from a tee and they start to play in golf.

A kick-off is a method of starting a drive in American football and Canadian football, too.

  • So the meaning sounds like, "first we face, then off we go"?
    – user66974
    Oct 14 '15 at 11:56
  • @Josh61 I would rather say, "First we face, the puck is dropped off a referee's hand, then off we go.
    – user140086
    Oct 14 '15 at 11:59
  • I'm not sure that it is quite the same as kick-off and tee-off (where no opposing player is close at hand). As the question suggests, I've always thought there was a sense of confrontation as in stand-off. Maybe there's been a merging of terms.
    – JHCL
    Oct 14 '15 at 12:17
  • @JHCL I wanted to include "jump-off" and it also has the same meaning as tee-off, kick-off. The reason they face each other that close has more to do with the size of a puck rather than a confrontational image it invokes. If the puck is as big as a football or a basketball, they would not face each other that close. One more thaing, "where no opposing player is close at hand" doesn't seem to have a relevance as the size of a playing field and rules of each game will determine how they confront each other.
    – user140086
    Oct 14 '15 at 12:24
  • Well certainly it depends on the rules. In (Association) football, the nearest equivalent to a 'face-off' situation is a drop-ball restart. No '-off', just the confrontation.
    – JHCL
    Oct 14 '15 at 12:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy