Posted by ESC on June 30, 2001
In Reply to: The phrase Off the wall posted by Chris Miller on June 29, 2001
: Does anyone know when this phrase was first used? The earliest use I have found is 1974 in National Review - re Raquetball. Can anyone suggest an alternative?
OFF THE WALL - "Unconventional, bizarre. This bit of 20th century American slang may come from racquetball or squash, where the ball can bounce off the wall in a weird way, or even from surfing. where a large wave, called a wall, can break so as to send the surfer in a strange direction. The ball allusion seems the more likely one, but neither has been verified. Nevertheless, the term has been used to describe almost any sort of oddity since the late 1960's, as in 'He's always asking off-the-wall questions.'" From "Southpaws & Sunday Punches and other Sporting Expressions" by Christine Ammer (Penguin Books, New York, 1993).
A second source agrees that the phrase probably comes from sports where "balls often bounce erratically off walls." But a third theory is suggested in addition to the bouncing ball and surfing theories: ".the term may be related to the earlier expression 'bounce off the walls,' referring to the behavior of psychotic patients in mental hospitals." From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)