Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The Madhouse has been the sick house this week. Rian has had a nasty cold. Alexi has been battling stomachaches and I’ve been struggling with headaches and dizziness (I think it’s a combination of the decrease in meds and the screwy weather). Anyway, I chose “off your rocker” and it’s variants (off her rocker, off his rocker, etc.) as today’s word/expression (I remember when I was in high school telling a friend that my mom was “off her rocker” when she grounded me from telephone privileges – moms are insane).

From The Free Dictionary:

Out of one’s mind; crazy.

From Word

Originally the phrase was specifically about what we’d now call “mood swings.” Now it means “to be crazy,” but it used to connote a “normal” person who periodically, and unexpectedly, goes crazy.

“Aw, he’s just off his rocker– it’ll pass.”

Just imagine the kind of person you’d expect to find “on a rocker.” An elderly person, the stodgy old grandma or grandpa most every household has in residence (the expression dates from 1897, before nursing homes were so acceptable). Most of the time they just sit and rock, hands folded, muttering quietly. But every now and then a sudden agitation overcomes old Uncle Nancy, he jumps up and cavorts around the house. Or runs off to the wars with his WWII Home Guard helmet on– “out of uniform” so to speak, like Hyacinth Bucket’s old dad.

From Word

There are two schools of thought on the origin of this phrase and one of them is that the expression has nothing to do with either falling out of a rocking chair or somehow being off the curved piece of wood upon which the rocking takes place. In the opinion of eminent lexicographer Laurence Urdang and in my humble opinion, based on the evidence I have seen, the other possibility seems more likely. Urdang stated his case in a discussion of OFF ONE’S TROLLEY, which, as it turns out, is intimately related to OFF ONE’S ROCKER as follows:

Picturesque Expressions by Urdang

OFF ONE’S TROLLEY: This expression alludes to the once-common spectacle of a motormen’s attempts to realign the contact wheel of a trolley car with the overhead wire. Since this contact wheel is also called a ‘trolley,’ ‘off one’s trolley’ may refer either to the conductor’s actions or to the fact that when the wires are “off the trolley,” the vehicle no longer receives an electric current and is, therefore, rendered inoperative.

A similar expression is SLIP ONE’S TROLLEY ‘to become demented.’ In the more widely used variation OFF ONE’S ROCKER, ‘rocker’ is most often said to refer to the curved piece of wood on which a cradle or chair rocks. But since both ‘off one’s trolley’ and ‘off one’s rocker’ became popular about the same time streetcars were installed in major American cities, and since ROCKER, like TROLLEY, also means the wheel or runner that makes contact with an overhead electricity supply, it is more likely that the ROCKER of the expression carries this later meaning.

<1897 “When asked if he swallowed the liniment, he said, ‘Yes, I was OFF MY ROCKER”—Daily News, 29 June, page 3/5>

Some additional quotes include:

<1923 “The Duke is OFF HIS ROCKER.”—‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ by Wodehouse, viii. page 78>

<1932 “It’s going to be awkward for us if the Emperor goes OFF HIS ROCKER.”—‘Black Mischief’ by Evelyn Waugh, v. page 195>

<1943 “We’re wondering if there was anybody who cared enough about Mrs. Wainright to go OFF HIS ROCKER and kill both of ’em when she fell for somebody else.”—‘She Died a Lady’ by C. Dickson, vii. page 58>

<1976 “‘To put the record straight, what I said was that some of them were . . .’ ‘Off their rockers?’ suggested the reporter.”—‘Wilt’ by T. Sharpe, xiv. page 144>


What Urdang does not specifically say, is that the first appearance in print of OFF ONE’S TROLLEY in 1896 (see quote below) was followed less than one year later in 1897 (see quote above) by OFF ONE’S ROCKER. This, and the fact that electric trolleys were ‘off’ and running in the 1890s would seem to indicate that we might have more than just a coincidence here. And it strikes me that falling ‘asleep’ in one’s rocking chair is a much more likely event than ‘falling off one’s rocking chair’ – an occurrence seemingly too rare to warrant having an expression named after it – or the even rarer occurrence of somehow being ‘off the rocker’ on one’s rocking chair (whatever that might mean – it’s hard to visualize). On the other hand, even by the 1940s when I would pass three different trolley lines on my mile or so walk to my elementary school every day (yes, kids actually walked to school in those prehistoric times), I often saw men working on a stalled trolley trying to get that overhead, spring-loaded pole, back onto the power line where it belonged – it had gone OFF ITS ROCKER.

<1896 “Any one that’s got his head full o’ the girl proposition’s liable to go OFF HIS TROLLEY at the first curve.”—‘Artie’ by George Ade, x. page 92>

<1903 “She’s OFF HER TROLLEY. She toins [[Brooklynese for ‘turns’]] sick; an’ in a week she croaks.”—‘The Boss, and How He Came to Rule New York’ by A.H. Lewis, xix. page 264>

<1949 “If you suspect Patty, you’re OFF YOUR TROLLEY!”–‘Young & Fair’ by N. R. Nash, II. ii. page 66>

<1983 “The London college gym mistress who is suing her former lover for libel in the High Court, heard a lawyer say yesterday that she had ‘gone OFF HER TROLLEY’ about the affair.”—‘Times,’ 5 February, page 3/1>

(Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins)

*There were more references from this page, but I’ll let the more curious among seek those out on your own.

So, despite the cute picture, being off your rocker has nothing to do with rocking chairs. News to me.


About Holly

I hope you're able to glean something from this blog, a nugget of wisdom, a new perspective, a smile or even a laugh. I enjoy getting feedback so please comment, share your story with me too. After all, we're here to help each other.
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6 Responses to Wednesday, September 26, 2012

  1. That is really wild, Holly! I would totally look at someone who fell off his/her rocking chair (sounds like something I would do) as doing something cuckoo…but trolley cars, that is very interesting. You just never know what you are going to find out, huh? 🙂 XOXO-SWM P.S. Are you getting my blog in your email still? I had to go re-set some of the blogs I follow as I found out I there were posts I hadn’t seen yet!

  2. In fact, I thought I was off my rocker! LOL! 😉

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