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According to the Online Etymological Dictionary

[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?

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  • Cf. write-off; payoff; tip off ...
    – Kris
    Mar 22, 2018 at 6:40
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    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, 2018 at 22:06
  • "offset" doesn't commonly mean a counterbalance in the engineering sense, but can mean something "set off" against something else, e.g. a payment against a future bill/debt. So I think there's a bit of a misapprehension behind this question.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 27, 2022 at 8:53
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    Compare "to fend off", i.e. to repel or "push away" -> To exert an opposing force.
    – TimR
    Jan 20 at 17:53
  • Good question. I think there must be a metaphorical broadening (as Kris implies; 'write off' = 'restore balance'). May 19 at 16:05

1 Answer 1

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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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  • I've never come across "offset" meaning a counterbalance in the engineering sense, although it's commonly used in finance. Wikipedia lists several meanings of offset in science which mostly refer to a specific measurement of distance in various contexts.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 27, 2022 at 8:55
  • @StuartF As I mentioned, most meanings of "offset" don't have anything to do with a counterbalance. I was merely trying to address the literal question, "If X is 'offset' would be set away from Y, then how can X counterbalance Y?" The mechanical explanation doesn't seem to inspire anyone; can you come up with an example from finance that shows how "offset" X can counterbalance Y even though X is not in the same place as Y? Or a financial definition of "off" that makes sense of the etymology? You might be able to write a better answer than I did.
    – David K
    Sep 27, 2022 at 12:15
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    Note that OP originally was evidently not thinking of a counterbalance in engineering terms, because an engineer would already know the counterbalance has to be away from the weight it is balancing.
    – David K
    Sep 27, 2022 at 12:20
  • Actually, any offset involves an imaginary vertical or horizontal line against which something is measured. In that sense, it is a measurrement counterbalance, intellectually speaking. And funnily enough, in accounting, there's an imaginary line down the middle between expenses and income, which offset each other. Also, in surveying, where there is an imaginary center line. I'm surprised by you math whizzes not seeing that.
    – Lambie
    May 19 at 19:45
  • @Lambie It sounds like you are ready to write a new answer. Let's see it!
    – David K
    2 days ago

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