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Off the hook

Posted by R. Berg on June 20, 2001

In Reply to: Off the hook posted by ESC on June 20, 2001

: : : : I work with graduate students from all over the world and frequently use idioms and phrases that I need to define. I used the phrase "off the hook" today in a discussion but want to check my assumption of the origin of this phrase.

: : : : I have assumed that this comes from the fact that meat in processing plants is hung on "meat hooks" suspended from a rack to facilitate moving the heavy carcasses. To be "on the hook" would certainly be a painful position, so that being "off the hook" would be a relief. Therefore, "off the hook" could be used to indicate being removed from a painful situation.

: : : : Can anyone verify this in any way? I searched the archives and did not find anything, but I just stumbled across this resource a couple of days ago.

: : : I checked the Brewer Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 1898 and they have:

: : : "He is off the hooks. Done for, laid on the shelf, superseded, dead. The bent pieces of iron on which the hinges of a gate rest and turn are called hooks; if a gate is off the hooks it is in a bad way, and cannot readily be opened and shut."

: : These days, though, being off the hook has an opposite meaning: not in a bad way but in a good way--specifically, relieved of a worrisome obligation.

: Or the origin could be letting a fish off the hook.

I think it is--see post a few steps above, with quote from Dict. of Amer. Slang.