Posted by ESC on June 20, 2001
In Reply to: Off the hook posted by R. Berg 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 Done for, laid on the shelf, superseded, dead.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.
OFF THE HOOK - Barron's "A Dictionary of American Idioms (Second Edition, edited by Adam Makkai (Barron's, New York, 1987) has the meaning that I'm familiar with but no origin: Off the hook - adv. phrase. Out of trouble; out of an awkward situation.
"Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 1, H-O" by J.E. Lighter, Random House, New York, 1994, did not have that meaning. It had a whole other meaning. "Off the hook - Rap Music. Wonderful, exciting." and "off the hooks, 1. in or into a state of madness or intense excitement; crazy, angry, or vexed;; unhinged. Rare in the U.S."