There was the following statement in Washington Post (July 29) article that came under the title, “John Kelly, Trump’s new chief of staff, ‘won’t suffer idiots and fools.’”

“Officials there had grown tired of the four-star general speaking off message - about the president’s plan to shut down the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, about the perceived vulnerability of America’s borders, about the threat posed to American interests by any number of terrorist organizations. Their relationship had become so strained that in the weeks before he retired, multiple administration officials went to the media and accused Kelly and other military leaders of endeavoring to undermine the Guantánamo closure plan.”

There are “speak of,” “speak off-the-cuff,” “speak out (up)” as idioms in the dictionary at hand, but I don’t find “speak off.” What does “speak off message” mean? Does it mean to give an outright message? Is it popular use of “speak”?

Additionally, though my question might look naïve to you, what does the new Chief of Staff won’t “suffer idiots and fools” exactly mean?

  • 2
    "won't suffer fools and idiots" means he won't put up with them. It is usually "won't suffer fools gladly", which means have little patience with fools. See the New York Times
    – ab2
    Jul 30, 2017 at 1:55
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    @ab2. Thanks a lot. the NYT article you introduced helped me to comprehend the usage of "not + suffer" phrase. Honestly, my understanding of the verb, suffer was limited only to the usage in the context of 'suffer from head ache, injury, financial difficulty' and the like. Jul 30, 2017 at 4:33
  • 2
    not suffer fools gladly: to have very little patience with people who you think are stupid or have stupid ideas. dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/…
    – user66974
    Jul 30, 2017 at 6:40
  • The idiom is speak off-the-cuff, the hyphenation, in this case, isn't absolutely required but get it wrong and it is confusing.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 30, 2017 at 12:15
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    Voting to close; you're parsing the phrase in a nonsensical way which wrecks the grammaticality of the surrounding sentence. It is speaking (off message) not (speaking off) message. Please use the English Language Learner's SE.
    – Kaz
    Jul 30, 2017 at 14:58

5 Answers 5


It's not speaking off. It's speaking off message. The verb is not important. Off message (or off-message) means deviating from a prescribed message. Staying on message means sticking to the prescribed message.

Adjective: off-message 'óf'me-sij

(politics) publicly stating or supporting a policy counter to the official party policy

-- WordWeb Online

(Off the cuff is another idiom, with a different meaning. But there too, it's not the verb "speaking" that is important.)


The phrase off-message (sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not) is a surprisingly recent term, but one often used in political journalism.

OED provides a definition:

Not in accordance with a planned or intended message; spec. departing from official party policy.

The first attested use is from 1992 in The Washington Post:

Although it [sc. the Clinton transition team] harnessed masterfully the new prestige of the president-elect.., it has also endured a torrent of stories about such ‘off message’ matters as homosexuals in the military and the role of Hillary Clinton.

In the case of that example, "off message" means not in accordance with the message the Clinton transition team wanted to focus on. It was not "on their messaging agenda."

Similarly, in the example given, Kelly's statements are not aligned with the messaging preferred by the communications operatives around him, meaning that his remarks were off message.

  • 1
    The "off-message" is similar to Scaramucci's expletive ridden "off-the-record" threat that he leaked to The New Yorker, saying he was going to fire anyone who was caught leaking to the press. Only the recently appointed "Mooch" forgot to tell the reporter that he was speaking off the record. The irony of it all...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 30, 2017 at 11:33
  • The recently appointed communication director. Opps. Sorry, the recently fired... yikes!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 2, 2017 at 15:33

In this sentence, "off" goes with "message", to mean that the person spoke in a way that differs from the official message.

Often, I've seen this disambiguated by way of hyphenation, as in off-message. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/off-message

As for suffering idiots and fools, it means that the speaker will not tolerate others' stupidity.

If you're curious, here's a wiki on a related phrase: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffer_fools_gladly


"Speaking off message" is a popular idiom....

Answering the banner question:'Is “speaking off” a popular idiom?' first; the OED defines idiom as:

A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words

A form of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people. "he had a feeling for phrase and idiom"

The dialect of a people or part of a country.

~ the important part of idiom is that it's about a use of language that develops within a community. As RaceYouAnytime says "Speaking off message" is a popular idiom in political journalism, and became common usage in this area in the early '90s. Since then (in my experience) it has become a well-used & commonly understood idiom in other contexts such as business and public service instutions - at least in American English and British English.

Its use presupposes (1) that there is a common stance that a particular group (e.g.. management, party officials, employees, teachers within a school) should be taking (2) when reporting to another group (eg. employees, the press, customers, parents, respectively) and often that (3) there is some coercive power relationship which discourages expressing opinions which deviate from the "party line" (a much older political idiom). Its usage seems to coincide with the rise in influence of political managers and 'spin doctors'*.

As such it would be an entirely odd & unidiomatic to use it referring to something said within group of friends, where differences in opinion are usually not managed!

*see 'The Thick of It'(2000's) with 'Yes Minister'(1980's) for a good satirical comparison of the new era with old in British politics

similar usage...

To better understand "off message" (oddgirlout discusses this too) and thereby to answer your other questions, it might be useful to imagine a hyphen in the phrase: "Speaking off-message" (as opposed to "Speaking on-message"). The use in (British & American) English has become widespread in the past (25?) years:

"I going off-line for a few days"

"our discussion has gone a bit off-topic in the last 5 minutes"

"you're looking a little off-colour today" (feeling ill)

(the hyphens are not required but would be understood and accepted)

suffer fools...

The line ‘won’t suffer idiots and fools’ refers to "suffer fools gladly" though quite why Kelly thinks it clever to add the superfluous "idiots" is beyond me!


"Off message" I take to mean "off topic". The word "fools" has multiple meanings and "idiots" is also used currently to indicate a number of different states. Since one man's fool may be another man's wise man, the expression gives us very little specific information about the General's ideas. Maybe the writer was warning Trump to change his ways and had difficulty finding the right word for the President.

  • This doesn't answer the question asked.
    – AndyT
    Aug 2, 2017 at 14:58
  • You clearly haven't read the article cited, nor any of the answers posted.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 2, 2017 at 15:35
  • The question was "What does it exactly mean?".One cannot tell until the General defines what he means by "fools and idiots". I suggest we don't know unless he defines those words for us. This is after all political verbiage. Perhaps he means people of a opposite political persuasion. He is Mr.Trump's third selection within 6 months; remembering that should be helpful.
    – Aled Cymro
    Aug 3, 2017 at 16:07
  • "...gives us very little specific information about the General's ideas" I disagree, it actually describes the general's personality, whether you agree with the journalist or not is up to you. But I'll trust the American journalist of the Washington Post who has actually meant the general in person.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 6, 2017 at 13:45

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