In Reply to: Off the hook posted by ESC on July 07, 2010 at 00:37:
: : : In our (USA) AARP Bulletin, there was an article by Betsy Towner listing 50 phrases that have been around for many years and what they really mean. Number 31 was "Off the hook" which she defined as "Crazy, like a ringing phone before voice mail". I grew up in Michigan in the 30's, 40's and 50's and that phrase had a different origin. It was a allusion to fishing and meant that, like the fish that somehow got off the hook, you had escaped something unpleasant. I wondered, seeing your website cited, whether the definitions she used were particular in some cases to the UK and not the USA.
: : As a native of SE England, I can confidently state that I have never ever heard "Off the hook" used to mean "crazy", or anything at all other than "escaping from a difficult situation", which is certainly a metaphor from fishing. (VSD)
: The young ones in the U.S. use the phrase in a different way: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=off%20the%20hook
The old ones in the U.S. use the phrase, as the British seem to do, to mean something like "escaping from a difficult or unpleasant situation," "You're off the hook for that, so now you can breathe easier." This means you are no longer being held responsible for whatever you're "off the hook" for. If someone expects you to, say, go visit Aunt Hattie, and Hattie calls up to say you can't come, you tell your spouse, "Well, we're off the hook for that." If there's an historic association with fishing, as seems probable, it doesn't seem to adhere, psychologically, to its present use. That is, there's no sense that if you can't weasel out of some obligation you'll be reeled in and be eaten. Or maybe there is, at least sometimes.
Betsy Towner is right in that there is a phrase, "The phone was ringing off the hook," which I suppose means that it was ringing so hard or so frequently that the receiver jumped the hook. You could say, if so inclined and the circumstances fit, that "Things are crazy around here. The phone has been ringing off the hook all day." Telephone receivers used to be held in a hook on the side of the phone box. The microphone, called the mouthpiece, was fixed. This was eventually followed by a design in which both receiver and mouthpiece were in a handheld unit, resting (when not in use) on a metal cradle which served as and resembled a pair of hooks a few inches apart.
I think "hook" is still used for phones that hang on the wall. Otherwise I think they sit in a "cradle." Or are just held in your hand, as is the case with the "iPhone" and others of that ilk.