Saturday, June 7, 2014


A friend and I were emailing back and forth last night about some interesting men we have known, and I happened to use the term " a one-off" as a way of describing each of them. She went on to use the phrase 'a bubble off plumb' in regard to one of them, and went on later to tell me that the phrase comes from a carpenter's level, which is used to determine if a board is lined up evenly. She wondered then where "one off" came from, so I decided to look into it.


The first surprise I had was that 'one-off' apparently isn't common American usage.I came across this in a  New York Times article by Ben Zimmer, which begins with one of his readers emailing him to complain that he (or she) keeps hearing the term "one-off" with great frequency. It seems obvious to the person that it is a bastardization of "one of", as in 'one of a kind' and she (or he) is increasingly irritated by it.

Mr. Zimmer has to let the reader down gently and report that just because it isn't a common term in American usage doesn't mean that the Brits don't use it.

I am American, not British, but I have never really thought 'one-off' sounded odd. It seemed obvious to me that it wasn't intended to be "of". After all, there is the phrase 'a knock off'', as in a cheap imitation. I don't think anyone would suspect that should really be 'knock of". Still, Americans are so bemused by this term that apparently they constantly are trying to correct it back to "one of". Here's a thread from the fabulous Egghorn Database, which takes 'one-off'" to be correct, but leads to some increasingly vituperative commentary.

"One-off" seems to come from the language of English manufacturing. It was probably used to describe how many items you were instructed to cast off a mold or make from a pattern. So the term would be twenty off, a hundred off, or whatever you wanted. It isn't a very old term, as the first printed instance of it is as recently as 1934. According to World Wide Words, here is that first usage:

“A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.” (The reference is to a casting mould formed in sand.)

It appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen.

As is the wonderful way with language, the concrete sense of foundry work soon led to more figurative usage. So a person can be a one-off (well, all people are, actually), an event can be a one-off, a request can be a one-off (a one time donation, for example). But as I was writing to my friend, I realized that there is a phrase that may sound more common to American ears, and thus make 'one-off' have more sense:

"When they came to Jack, they broke the mold."

(The drawings are from a marvelous early twentieth century booklet on Green Sand Molding, and you can see more of them HERE).

No comments:

Post a Comment