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Off the streets

Posted by Smokey Stover on June 14, 2008 at 16:47

In Reply to: Off the streets posted by ESC on June 14, 2008 at 10:25:

: : Does anyone know the origin of the phrase "..that'll keep me off the streets and out of the pool halls"? My mother uses it to describe an activity that will keep her quite busy, but she doesn't know the source of the expression.

: Two possibilities. A family can't pay the rent and they and their possessions are thrown out on the street. Or city kids with nothing to do hang around on the streets and get into trouble.

ESC has hit the nail on the head. The reason to want be off the street(s) is so that you won't be "on the street" or "on the streets." The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes the two thus:

"On the street" can mean (a) free, not in prison, that is, not in prison yet, or out of prison; (b) where you get illegal drugs; or (c) out of work, unemployed.

If you are "on the streets," you are homeless, "turned out of doors" (OED).

I think the expression "off the streets," especially if you add "out of the pool halls," is a humorous way of saying you're doing something useful and not courting danger and dishonor by hanging around the mean streets and low places. I've heard the expression often, that is, "it'll at least keep him off the streets," et sim., meaning "it'll keep him out of trouble."