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TWTS: Don't blow off "off"

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“Off” isn’t just an insect repellant. It’s a versatile word that might not look like much, but it’s amazing how many different ways we use it.

You can go off on someone. You can blow something off. You can brush something off. Or, if you’re so inclined, you can call the whole thing off.

These examples are all known as phrasal verbs, i.e., verbs that have more than one part. And those are just a few examples. Once we started talking about these “off” verbs, we kept coming up with more .

On this week’s That’s What They Say, we took a closer look at some of the various ways in which we use “off” and where some of them came from.

For example, “go off” goes back to the 1500s and meant “to detonate” or “to explode.” Bombs go off, guns go off, etc. We still use this meaning today.

Today we also use “go off on” when we talk about getting really angry at someone: “If I miss this meeting, my boss is going to go off on me.”

If you think about going off on someone as expressing explosive anger, it’s not hard to see how the literal meaning of “go off” leads to the figurative meaning behind “go off on.”

To hear more about “off” and its many uses, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.