Textile Idiom Series: “Off the Cuff”

June 5, 2023

Much of our everyday language—in the form of idioms, clichés, or metaphors—makes reference to textiles. Using these phrases, we weave stories, spin tales, and thread narratives. But where do these expressions come from, and what do they mean? 

In a blog series posted on intermittent Mondays, we unpack textile-related idioms. Stay tuned to learn their metaphorical and historical meanings.

The idiom ‘off the cuff’ likely originated in the United States during the early 20th century. It was first used in print in a 1936 Los Angeles Times article about Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times titled “Directors Turn Back Time, Again ‘Shoot Off the Cuff’” in which Chaplin’s character writes lyrics on his shirtsleeves before going on stage. The exact origin of the idiom is disputed, sometimes attributed to dinner guests writing remarks on the starched cuffs of their shirts or to actors jotting their lines down on their costumes when there wasn’t time to fully memorize the script. Today, when we say that a speech, presentation, or commentary is off the cuff, we mean that it is unrehearsed and not that we have literally written it on our sleeves – an important distinction in an age when most of us do our own laundry!