For the Love of Prepositions Part 3: The F-words–‘of’ and ‘off’

This is the third in my ongoing series of etymological/poetic posts on modern English prepositions, a subject for which I have always harbored a peculiar passion. For previous posts see and It is important for aspiring poets to study not only the polysemy but also the historical undertow of words. This is particularly true of those that are often dismissed by teachers as ‘little’, ‘functional’ or ‘grammar’ words and hence go overlooked. It is, to my mind, precisely the judicious use of such nuts and bolts of language that distinguishes greatness from mediocrity.

According to most counts, ‘of’ is the third or fourth most frequent word in the English language. This is largely a result of its increasing use to form the genitive, a habit that began when Old English, with its genitive inflexions, began, in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, to coexist with Old French, in which de had long since taken on this role. Although de is, ironically, related etymologically to to not of

‘Of’ has undergone much erosion over the years. From Old English ‘aef’ to ‘of’ to ‘o’ to a bare schwa (more frequent in US English) and is increasingly coming to be replaced by the use of a noun as a qualifier, especially in bureaucratic and journalistic language (e.g. ‘newspaper language’ rather than ‘the language of newspapers’).

Ultimately ‘of’ derives from Germanic and Latin ‘ab,’ cognate with Ancient Greek apo-, which is also the conjectured proto-Indo-European form, with a stronger sense of ‘away’.

‘Off’ is exactly the same word as ‘of’, except with added emphasis, and dates back to the early period of Middle English. The spelling results from that beautiful tendency in post-printing press written English to double up consonants at the end of the word, especially if the word begins with a vowel/zero consonant or if it is a monosyllabic proper name (e.g. egg, ill, odd, add, Webb, Cobb, Clegg). I believe that this derives from an eminently practical need to fit letters onto the printed page and to provide a more pleasing shape for the reader’s eye. “Wel” and “od” would look, well, odd, in the middle of an English sentence.

“Off” is replete with negative connotations. The various expletives that over the years have appeared before it, “fuck, piss, sod, bugger,” are so many place-holders; it is the ‘off’ that delivers the rebuff, the éminence grise that arranges an array of thuggish verbs to effect the hit. ‘Game over’ is a subtle exhortation to continue playing; “(Turn that fucking) game off!” leaves us in no doubt as to what we are expected to do. Words that end in /f/ tend to be rough.

In the vast array of idioms and phrasal verbs it has commandeered, ‘off’ can signify ‘leaving’ (“I’m off”), ‘rotting’ (“The milk has gone off”), ‘shedding’ (“cast off”), ‘de-activation’ (“turn off”), ‘cancellation’ (“The bets are off”), ‘completion’ (“finish off”), ‘irrevocable beginning,’ (“set off”, in at least two separate senses) ‘severance’ (“cut off”), ‘distortion’ “off-color”, ‘deviance from the norm’ (“There is something off about him”), ‘repulsion/rejection’ (“put off”, “shrug off”) or ‘casual self-gratification’ (“jerk off”, “sound off”). Often it can convey the sense of all of the above in one biting phrasal verb. It fizzles like gunpowder in a firework.

It hovers between the status of preposition, adverb and adjective. Can even be used as a verb, has even coaxed verbs into its orbit and partially digested them, as in “doff”. It is a preposition on the up and, flick-knife always at the ready, not in a nice way. There is always something faintly distasteful about “off”.

“Of,” however—the gentler older sibling—rhymes with ‘love’ and bonds people, places and things together, rather than cutting them off. Sadly, it is perhaps less interesting for that and this may well tell us much that we do not wish to know about ourselves as human beings.


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