off your rocker

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

off your rocker

Post by Alton » Wed Jun 22, 2005 10:16 pm

Can anyone tell me the origin of thr expression "off of your rocker".
Post actions:
Signature: R.A.J. Metcalfe

off your rocker

Post by dalehileman » Thu Jun 23, 2005 4:46 pm

I suspect it's because one's head is said to rock
But I like Russ' expl better (below)
Post actions:

off your rocker

Post by russcable » Thu Jun 23, 2005 9:37 pm

Once you have fallen off your rocker (rocking chair, implying old age/senility), you are off your rocker.
Post actions:

off your rocker

Post by Bobinwales » Fri Jun 24, 2005 12:57 pm

Rocker - implying old age/selinity - must be the Rolling Stones.
Post actions:
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

off your rocker

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Jun 24, 2005 2:44 pm

Alton, OFF ONE’S ROCKER (1897) means crazy, demented, out of one’s mind, in a confused or befuddled state of mind, senile. It is synonymous with OFF ONE’S TROLLEY (1896) or NUT (1860), CHUMP (1864), CONK (by 1870), ONION (1890), ROCKET (1910s - 1950s), BASE (late 19th century), BEAN (20th century), HEAD (mid-19th century), KAZIP (1900-1930s), KADOOVA (late 19th century), NANA (1940s), NOB (1950s), PANNICAN/PANNIKIN (1895 - 1930s, Australia), SAUCER (20th century), TOP (mid-19th century), TOP TRAVERSE (20th century, Australia). <“When the old codger realized that he had lost all of his money, he went off his rocker.”>

There are two schools of thought on the origin of this phrase and one of them is that the expression has nothing to do with either falling out of a rocking chair or somehow being off the curved piece of wood upon which the rocking takes place. In the opinion of eminent lexicographer Laurence Urdang and in my humble opinion, based on the evidence I have seen, the other possibility seems more likely. Urdang stated his case in a discussion of OFF ONE’S TROLLEY, which, as it turns out, is intimately related to OFF ONE’S ROCKER as follows:

Picturesque Expressions by Urdang

OFF ONE’S TROLLEY: This expression alludes to the once-common spectacle of a motormen’s attempts to realign the contact wheel of a trolley car with the overhead wire. Since this contact wheel is also called a ‘trolley,’ 'off one’s trolley' may refer either to the conductor’s actions or to the fact that when the wires are “off the trolley,” the vehicle no longer receives an electric current and is, therefore, rendered inoperative.

A similar expression is SLIP ONE’S TROLLEY ‘to become demented.’ In the more widely used variation OFF ONE’S ROCKER, ‘rocker’ is most often said to refer to the curved piece of wood on which a cradle or chair rocks. But since both ‘off one’s trolley’ and ‘off one’s rocker’ became popular about the same time streetcars were installed in major American cities, and since ROCKER, like TROLLEY, also means the wheel or runner that makes contact with an overhead electricity supply, it is more likely that the ROCKER of the expression carries this later meaning.

<1897 “When asked if he swallowed the liniment, he said, ‘Yes, I was OFF MY ROCKER”—Daily News, 29 June, page 3/5>
__________________________

Some additional quotes include:
<1923 “The Duke is OFF HIS ROCKER.”—‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ by Wodehouse, viii. page 78>

<1932 “It's going to be awkward for us if the Emperor goes OFF HIS ROCKER.”—‘Black Mischief’ by Evelyn Waugh, v. page 195>

<1943 “We're wondering if there was anybody who cared enough about Mrs. Wainright to go OFF HIS ROCKER and kill both of 'em when she fell for somebody else.”—‘She Died a Lady’ by C. Dickson, vii. page 58>

<1976 “‘To put the record straight, what I said was that some of them were . . .’ ‘Off their rockers?’ suggested the reporter.”—‘Wilt’ by T. Sharpe, xiv. page 144>
__________________________

What Urdang does not specifically say, is that the first appearance in print of OFF ONE’S TROLLEY in 1896 (see quote below) was followed less than one year later in 1897 (see quote above) by OFF ONE’S ROCKER. This, and the fact that electric trolleys were ‘off’ and running in the 1890s would seem to indicate that we might have more than just a coincidence here. And it strikes me that falling ‘asleep’ in one’s rocking chair is a much more likely event than ‘falling off one’s rocking chair’ – an occurrence seemingly too rare to warrant having an expression named after it – or the even rarer occurrence of somehow being ‘off the rocker’ on one’s rocking chair (whatever that might mean – it’s hard to visualize). On the other hand, even by the 1940s when I would pass three different trolley lines on my mile or so walk to my elementary school every day (yes, kids actually walked to school in those prehistoric times), I often saw men working on a stalled trolley trying to get that overhead, spring-loaded pole, back onto the power line where it belonged – it had gone OFF ITS ROCKER.
<1896 “Any one that's got his head full o' the girl proposition's liable to go OFF HIS TROLLEY at the first curve.”—‘Artie’ by George Ade, x. page 92>

<1903 “She's OFF HER TROLLEY. She toins [[Brooklynese for ‘turns’]] sick; an' in a week she croaks.”—‘The Boss, and How He Came to Rule New York’ by A.H. Lewis, xix. page 264>

<1949 “If you suspect Patty, you're OFF YOUR TROLLEY!”–‘Young & Fair’ by N. R. Nash, II. ii. page 66>

<1983 “The London college gym mistress who is suing her former lover for libel in the High Court, heard a lawyer say yesterday that she had ‘gone OFF HER TROLLEY’ about the affair.”—‘Times,’ 5 February, page 3/1>
(Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins)
____________________

Ken G – June 24, 2005
Post actions:

off your rocker

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Jun 24, 2005 5:16 pm

Ken, your account is fairly persuasive, but I cannot help wondering why none of the quotations you have cited for either expression refers to the trolley-car mishap in its literal sense. I would have thought that if this occurrence was so common, it would be reflected in contemporaneous descriptions that explicitly referred to trolley cars being 'off their trolleys' or 'off their rockers'. That no such references appear to be extant in relation to such a concrete (and relatively recent) technical problem strikes me as distinctly odd.
Post actions:
Signature: -- Looking up a word? Try OneLook's metadictionary (--> definitions) and reverse dictionary (--> terms based on your definitions)8-- Contribute favourite diary entries, quotations and more here8 -- Find new postings easily with Active Topics8-- Want to research a word? Get essential tips from experienced researcher Ken Greenwald

off your rocker

Post by Phil White » Fri Jun 24, 2005 6:34 pm

Welcome back, Ken, we've all missed you. May I fetch your slippers for you?
... an occurrence seemingly too rare to warrant having an expression named after it ...
May we assume that people walking round with a pocketful of marbles (whether they be small playthings or rather large sculptures) which they for some inexplicable reason lose is on the other hand such a common occurrence as to have an expression named after it?
Post actions:
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

off your rocker

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Jun 24, 2005 6:56 pm

Why yes, as is the phenomenon of bats roosting in church towers!
Post actions:
Signature: -- Looking up a word? Try OneLook's metadictionary (--> definitions) and reverse dictionary (--> terms based on your definitions)8-- Contribute favourite diary entries, quotations and more here8 -- Find new postings easily with Active Topics8-- Want to research a word? Get essential tips from experienced researcher Ken Greenwald

off your rocker

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Jun 25, 2005 12:54 am

Phil, Good point! And Erik, I got lazy and just used what the OED had to offer. Upon doing my own search I found the following, which also includes references to other things (a dumbwaiter, the weather) coming ‘off their trolley’ which don’t have much to do with a rocking chair, but do relate to coming off track. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any ‘off its rockers,’ though.
<1902 “Annual Rush At Harvard - Victorious Freshman Celebrate by Stopping Trolley Cars and Tying Up Traffic for an Hour’: The route was up Massachusetts Avenue, where the men joined forces, locked arms, began singing “Up the Street” and started in a waving, skipping line straight up the trolley track. A [[trolley]] car was coming in from Boston, so it came to a standstill. In another second it was in darkness. A bright youngster had put “OFF ITS TROLLEY.” The crowd cheered and the conductor leaned back to find the wire again. Meantime other cars piled up behind the motionless one, and boys jerked the trolley ropes right and left until the dozen or more cars standing on the tracks were in darkness. Then the fun began. Policemen were thrown aside, cars piled up, wires sizzled, conductors raved. The fun continued for over an hour, utterly demoralizing streetcar traffic and proving one of the wildest, most humorous, and exasperating ‘rough houses’ that Harvard has ever known.”—‘New York Times,' 30 September, page 1>
The fact that ‘off its trolley’ was put in quotes would indicate, I guess, that in 1902 the expression had the figurative as well as its literal meaning – can’t think of another reason. The 'ropes' referred to above were attached to the spring-loaded 'trolley poles' that rose from the top of the trolley car to the overhead power cable and their purpose was to prevent the pole from flying up and doing some damage in the event that the 'trolley pulley' lost contact with the power cable and also to give the conductor a means of getting the trolley pulley back on track. So, by jerking the trolley ropes the students disengaged the pulley and power was lost.
<1904 “. . . the dumbwaiter would slip OFF ITS TROLLEY, …”—‘Chicago Daily Tribune,’ 12 June, page 31>

<1925 “Once in 186 years this cycle has a spell in which the climate goes OFF ITS TROLLEY and needs all the patience its friends can give it.”—‘New York Times, 9 August>
In Roger Kahn’s book Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art, and Writing About It a Game (2004), he describes the Nostrand Avenue trolley, which was just a few blocks from my home (1940s-50s) in Brooklyn, as follows:
<”Squealing with the steel wheels rolling on steel tracks, the Nostrand Avenue trolley rattled across our path. Unlike the trolleys in Manhattan that rode over submerged electrical lines, Brooklyn trolley cars drew power from an overhead cable. A sort of crane rose from the top of the Brooklyn trolleys, maintaining contact with the high cable unless the trolley swung around a turn too rapidly. Then the crane broke away from the high cable [[came 'off its trolley']], losing contact in a crackle of sparks. The motorman had to dismount and reposition the crane, a delicate process, often conducted over a background of ‘godammit,’ and worse.”>
That’s interesting and I do now recall that the Manhattan trolleys had no overhead wires. Jonathon Green discusses this in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang:
<“TROLLEY-CAR, a electric powered coach running along metal tracks set into the roadway. The Manhattan trolleys, which were not allowed overhead cables (as were those in Brooklyn) after so many came down in the hurricane of 1888, picked up their supply from an electrifies third rail so if the car became derailed, its power was lost.”>
However, it was almost impossible to derail a trolley unless it had a collision with another vehicle, whereas it was not at all uncommon for power to be lost when the overhead trolley wheel lost contact with the power cable as described by Kahn above. Also, unlike the subway third rail, the trolley third rail was underground, because if it wasn't people could get electrocuted crossing the street. Contact was made by a spring-loaded shoe protruding from the body of the trolley car and into the underground slot making contact with the third rail.

BTW, the OED defines the ‘trolley wheel’ or ‘trolley’ or ‘rocker’ (note: the OED does not actually use the word ‘rocker’) which makes contact with the power cable:
<“A grooved metallic pulley which travels along, and receives current from, an overhead electric wire, the current being then conveyed by a ‘trolley-pole’ or other conductor to a motor, usually that of a car on a street railroad.”>
The weak link in this whole discussion, as far as I am concerned, is that I haven’t found any source that calls the ‘trolley wheel’ a ‘rocker’ other than Laurence Urdang, but he is an outstanding scholar, his books are terrific, and I guess we have to take him at his word.

Coincidentally, I was sitting on one of my favorite reading spots this morning, which is a rock at the top of what’s known as Coyote Ridge (a 45 minute hike to the highest point on the ridge – trailhead is 10 minutes from my house – panoramic view to the east, of Fort Collins and the prairies beyond, and to the west of a gorgeous valley and the mountains – I do love this town) and nearly fell off my rock when I read the following in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (1999) — light summer reading and she just came out with Zorro, which should be fun.:
<“In other places the gold is already loose and to wash it up one uses a simple machine called a sluice or ROCKER an ordinary round-bottomed trough some ten feet long and two wide across the top.”>
My God, a ‘rocker.’ Hmm! If I was into making up folk etymology, I could sure concoct a good one about how OFF YOUR ROCKER derived from old gold miners . . . . .
____________________

Ken G – June 24, 2005
Post actions:

off your rocker

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Jun 25, 2005 1:31 am

Thank you, Ken. As always, you are both a gentleman and a scholar.
Post actions:
Signature: -- Looking up a word? Try OneLook's metadictionary (--> definitions) and reverse dictionary (--> terms based on your definitions)8-- Contribute favourite diary entries, quotations and more here8 -- Find new postings easily with Active Topics8-- Want to research a word? Get essential tips from experienced researcher Ken Greenwald

End of topic.
Post Reply