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.

The prefix 'off' etymologically signifies 'away'. So how did 'offset' semantically generalize to signify 'counterbalance'? If X is 'offset' would be set away from Y, then how can X counterbalance Y?

  • Cf. write-off; payoff; tip off ... – Kris Mar 22 '18 at 6:40
  • I suspect that some of the confusion is around the word "set". Of the many definitions I find, probably the best for the "counterbalance" use is 8 : to cause to assume a specified posture or position -- set the door ajar. Note that this is completely different from the definition for "setting off on a journey" (and "offset" is rarely used in that sense any more, except in the idiom "from the offset"). – Hot Licks Apr 23 '18 at 22:06

If you look at the driving wheels of an old steam locomotive, there is a connecting rod attached off-center to the wheel by a crank pin. The pin and rod contribute weight that unbalances the wheel.

If you're going to add weight to correct the imbalance, you don't want to add the weight in the same place as the pin. You want to add it somewhere else. So the new weight is somewhere "away" from the old weight.

Here is an example (source: Wikipedia, photo by Sean Lamb). The crank pin and connecting rod are attached on the right side of the wheel in this photograph, so the counterweight has been added to the left side, about as far from the pin as possible.

enter image description here

Note that there are many meanings of the noun offset (as shown in the Merriam-Webster definition, for example). Few of them involve counterbalancing, and (as far as I can tell) none implies a long distance; even in the archaic sense of the act of setting off on a journey, the offset of a trans-oceanic voyage is completed once you have left the dock.


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