As promised, here’s what I’ve found out about the idiom off the cuff.

Used as an adjective to mean speaking extemporaneously, without prior thought, off the cuff seems to originate from the practice of hurriedly making notes for a speech on one’s cuff, particularly in a time when cuffs were a separate accessory and could be removed.

One source suggests this maybe wasn’t so prevalent as speakers may like us to think – giving the impression of being spontaneous rather than obviously spending hours writing, editing and practising makes you look far more erudite and witty.

There is also the American English phrase on the cuff, meaning ‘on credit’. Bartenders at the turn of the twentieth century would keep tabs on their customers’ consumption by making marks on their starched white cuffs.

Cuff itself is a interesting little word…as so many short words using these sounds are, it’s from Middle English (for a glove or mitten).

Next week: Fine words butter no parsnips.

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