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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

go off on

(late 1990’s | athletese? | “jump on,” “chew out,” “attack”)

When you lose it, you go off on someone. Maybe the person who caused you to lose it, maybe just whoever’s handy. Whenever losing it involves rage, it is accompanied by a screaming fit, or worse, and although “go off on” someone seems generally to mean “attack verbally,” I’ve certainly seen it used to mean “attack physically,” too.

You could always go off on a tangent, or a trip, or whatever, but making a person the object is a new and striking phenomenon. I haven’t found too many instances of the phrase used in this new way before 1990. An interesting one comes off the sports page: “Our defense was lousy and we shot the ball poorly,” said Seattle Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. “We also let [Larry] Bird go off on us.” (UPI, December 13, 1989). Not throw a tantrum in the middle of the court, but play a great game and dominate the other team. This seems to be a related usage that is unique to sports lingo (the old terms for it were “light up,” or, more poetically, “run roughshod over”), and you still see it occasionally. I doubt it is an ancestor — probably more like an early variant that has been eclipsed, like “no-brainer” taken to mean “instinctive move” or “schlock.” “Go off on a tear” may well be an ancestor, however. I learned that one at George Carlin’s knee, from the “Hair Poem”:

“They see hair down to there,
Say, ‘Beware’ and go off on a tear!
I say, ‘No fair!’”

So that one was already around.

It took me a while to figure out the nuances of this expression, I am ashamed to admit. For a long time, I saw “on” as little more than a substitute for “at.” “Go off” has long referred to an explosion, like a gun or bomb detonating, and that’s so logical that it’s hard to imagine any other source. But now I think the use of “on” is more analogous to a phrase like “the car died on me,” or “My strength gave out on me.” “On” in such expressions carries a tinge of mystery or puzzlement: when something dies or gives out on you, you don’t see it coming. It may also carry the implication that it’s an imposition, or something you don’t deserve. And I sense that when people use the expression “go off on,” they are indicating or implying that the assault was unreasonable, or that nobody could ever have expected such a thing. Imagine a dazed bomb squad detective saying, “The sucker just went off on me,” and you’ll get the idea. There are exceptions, but the rule seem to hold a surprisingly high percentage of the time.

This phrase starts to turn up occasionally in the late 1980’s in Google Books and LexisNexis; I found hardly any examples before 1989. Aside from athletes, the phrase may have cropped up more often in African-American circles at first, but I don’t really have enough of a trail to be confident about its origins. It seems to have been in play, but not particularly common, by the late 1990’s. My own recollections do not tell me much, but I’m pretty sure I was familiar with the expression by 2000, and I don’t recall any difficulty in understanding the meaning — the context made it clear.

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