Off the Cuff

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

off the cuff

Have you ever been asked to speak extemporaneously? You know, at the last minute?

If so, you’ve had to speak off the cuff.

The phrase off the cuff refers to something that’s done on the spur of the moment, without any practice or rehearsal. It describes how you might get ready for an unexpected speech. 

Imagine yourself in a room full of people, put on the spot. You’re trying to think of what to say, and you realize you’d better take notes. But there’s no paper. So your write them frantically on the cuff of your shirt. 

If you were wearing a sweatshirt, that might not work so well.

Imagine you were wearing an old-time dress shirt with long, stiff, starched, white cuffs. You could write a lot of notes on those cuffs. 

But imagine you were wearing an old-time dress shirt. One with stiff, starched, white cuffs. Those cuffs were sometimes several inches long! You could write a lot of notes on something that long. 

Plus, cuffs (and collars) back then were often detachable. They buttoned on and off. When they got grungy, you could wash them without having to wash your whole shirt. So even if you ruined your cuff with writing, you could throw it away and clip on a new one tomorrow.

A Sears & Roebuck catalog from 1897 calls them “splendid for wear” and “unequaled for comfort.” A 1912 catalog from another retailer calls them “good looking, simple, practical, easily laundered, instantly put on and taken off.” And if you read your notes from them, you’d be speaking off the cuff

Maybe we should bring detachable cuffs back! We could all start writing notes on them, and we’d be prepared anytime we were asked to speak.

So, that’s your tidbit for today. If you do something off the cuff, you do it unrehearsed and on the spur of the moment. 

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.


Ammer, Christine. Off the cuff. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. http://bit.ly/1SRILNR (subscription required, accessed May 5, 2016).

Faber, Harold. The Talk of Troy: “The Collar City” is Loosening its Ties to the Past. New York Times, Jan. 22, 1989.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

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