Grammar Wednesday

Inspired by Kizz.

Yesterday, I wrote a post on my personal blog where I spoke of offering “one-of” specialty yoga classes at my health club. Kizz left this as a comment:

This is utterly off topic but I learned it as “one-off” and this is the second time I’ve seen you write “one-of”, where do we find out the origins of these colloquialisms?

I responded by saying that I’ve always said “one-of” because “one-off” doesn’t make ANY sense to me. One-OF something is just that – a one OF a kind; the “off” part never worked for me, so I always used “of.” She piqued my interest in this idea, though, so I went and looked it up. It turns out that it IS “one-off,”: and here’s what I found:

This began as a British expression but is now widely known in the US and elsewhere, I am told.

It comes out of manufacturing, in which off has long been used to mark a number of items to be produced of one kind: 20-off, 500-off. This seems to have begun in foundry work, or a similar trade, in which items were cast off a mould or from a pattern (“We’ll have 20 off that pattern and 500 off that other one”.) An example is in a book of 1947 by James Crowther and Richard Whiddington, Science at War: “Manufacturers found it very difficult to give up mass production, in order to make the 200 or so sets ‘off’.”

A one-off was just a single item, used in particular to refer to a prototype. The first known example appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen in 1934: “A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.” (The reference is to a casting mould formed in sand.)

Out of this came our current figurative sense of something that is done, made, or happens only once — as you say, one of a kind. An example appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph in February 2006: “Anyone who would like to donate in Mo’s memory is welcome to make a one-off donation or more long-term contributions.”

It can also be used of a special person, someone for whom it might be said “After they made him, they broke the mould”. Here’s an example from the Daily Telegraph of 13 April 2006, about Michael Eavis, who runs the Glastonbury Festival: “I have great respect for him. He’s a fantastic eccentric, really, a one-off.”

Would it be wrong of me to continue using “one-of”? (See, Linguist Buddies! I CAN be descriptionist… when it serves me!)

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10 Comments

Filed under Grammar, Learning, little bits of nothingness, out in the real world, Questions, self-analysis

10 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I’ve never considered it, as I’ve only ever heard one-off, and never one-of. But if I were to think about it, one-of does make more sense. Unfortunately though, idioms such as this have nothing to do with making sense.

  2. One-of makes so much more sense than one-off! I like your phrase. That’s how I use it, as well.

  3. One-of sounds so wrong to me. It’s a contraction, though, so I guess it’s sort of perfect for our text messaging world where we’re trying to reduce key strokes.

  4. I’ve never even heard the phrase as “one-off,” but then where I come from, saying that you are “so hungry you could gnaw your arm off” is puttin’ on airs and using high-falutin’ words. I can imagine the one person who used the phrase “one-off” was drummed outta town long before I was born.

  5. Wait! you have a personal blog? How did I miss this? Going to check it out right now!

  6. Using an idiom that no one else seems to use strikes me as more prescriptive than descriptivist.

  7. But if she starts a trend, then it will become descriptive. Personally, I’ve never heard either, so I’m equally confused.

  8. Pingback: Blogging With a Purpose Award « The Proletarian

  9. Like Dingo I never heard this expression, so thanks for teaching me something new to add to my vocabulary ;-)

  10. Brett Foster

    I still agree with your original statement. It is ‘one of’ for most uses if you want to use correct grammar. I will always say ‘one of’ where appropriate
    I have worked in production where, say ’50 off’ is a legitimate statement for the number of items coming off the line.
    But a “One Off Sale”? How is that good grammar when the intention is that there will be only one OF them?
    Stick to your guns!

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