April 24, 2004

Ask Language Log

Ron Hogan of beatrice.com emailed an inquiry:

"Browsing this UK review of the latest book from Christopher Ricks, due to come out here in the US shortly, I came across "the phrase 'from the off,' which I've never seen before. As best I can gather, it appears to be a cricket reference, perhaps with "off" short for 'off stump'".

Sean O'Hagan is the author of the review, and here's the phrase in context:

From the off, Ricks dives headlong into Dylan's lyrics, putting all his faith in close readings of the texts, and the texts alone.

Well, I don't think I've ever seen the phrase either, though I have recent evidence that my memory is not always reliable for such things. However, the editors of the OED have encountered it, and they document the encounter, way down at the bottom of the entry for off, sense D. 5.:

colloq. The start of a race... Also (in extended use): the start (of anything), the beginning; departure; a signal to start or depart.

Judging from the citations given, it's a British sports metaphor -- and perhaps a fairly recent one -- but from horse racing rather than from cricket:

1946 Sporting Life 15 June 1/1 Some open betting saw Paper Weight favourite at the ‘off’.
1966 J. PORTER Sour Cream xiv. 180 It was too late. The students nearest to him..thought this was the off. They began to move forward.
1978 Lancashire Life Apr. 50 (caption) Tangle-wrangle: Stan Lyons waits on the slipway for the ‘off’, while helpers sort-out the lines from his harness.
1999 I. RANKIN Dead Souls xi. 68 Rebus knew..how juries could decide from the off which way they'd vote.

O'Hagan's review may have some American-puzzling bits in it, but he also trips over his own trans-Atlantic shoelaces when he identifies Ricks as "formerly professor of English at Cambridge, now professor of humanities at Boston". This entangles O'Hagan in the knotty business of reference to academic institutions, which is one of those quasi-regular aspects of English that are as hard to get right as the plural of nouns ending in 'f', or the endings of ethnonyms.

Ricks is actually employed at Boston University, which is also familiarly referred to as "B.U." (or "BU") but (I believe) is not known as "Boston" to anyone (outside of the pages of the Guardian, of course).

I goofed myself on a similar matter of academic nomenclature a few weeks ago, when I wrote about York University instead of the University of York, and had to be set straight by Geoff Pullum, who (as a graduate of the latter institution) pointed out that "York University" is an entirely different place, located in Toronto rather than in the U.K.. From evidence on their respective websites, I'm confident that both "York University" and "the University of York" are sometimes familiarly called just plain "York", but if I hadn't seen the evidence there, I wouldn't be sure about it.

This raises the interesting question of how I can possibly be so sure that Boston University is never (appropriately) called just plain "Boston". I've never been told this explicitly; no one has ever corrected me (or anyone else in my hearing) for saying or writing the wrong form; there is no principle I can think of that it follows from. (Of course, I could simply be wrong about this -- but the point here is that I believe that I've learned it.)

In fact this is a case of implicit negative evidence, a phenomenon that some language learning theorists have claimed not to exist. I've learned that it's "wrong" to refer to BU as "Boston" because I've heard people refer to BU, in speech or writing, many thousands of times in my life, and none of them (I think!) ever referred to it as "Boston" before Sean O'Hagan did. This evidence, though statistical in nature, is good enough to give me high confidence in the conclusion.

I believe that the role of this kind of evidence in human language acquisition is relatively uncontroversial now, though some researchers still haven't really digested its implications. However, I can tell you that when I made this point in a talk at MIT about a decade ago, it was by no means uncontroversial. I should also say, for those of you who are not in the biz, that this is all connected to an interesting piece of intellectual history, dealing with the nature and source of human knowledge, which is also connected to a famous sentence from the 1950s, discussed here. But that's a topic for another post.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 24, 2004 05:46 PM