off your rocker / off your trolley

Discussion in 'English Only' started by europefranc, Feb 5, 2006.

  1. europefranc

    europefranc Senior Member


    Who knows the origin of the expression to be off one's rocker?

    Sentence :

    "If you think that you are completely off your rocker"

    Thanks a lot. Paola
  2. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    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.
  3. maxiogee Banned

    To be "off one's rocker" means to be mad, insane, not thinking correctly - but would be used in a somewhat jocular manner. It would not be a medical diagnosis. ;-)
  4. You little ripper! Senior Member

    Australian English
  5. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I'm not sold on the idea that "off one's rocker" is a literal equivalent of "off one's trolley." There's a pattern at work in the coinage of popular slang expressions that use metaphor, and two similar contemporary expressions like that are related, but not equated, by the fact that they arise from the same process.

    People like to vary their speech-- that's the principle at work here. The object of an expression like "off his trolley" is to treat something serious humorously. For humor you can't be predictable in your material, you have to give it a twist.

    So take an expression like "he's not playing with a full deck," meaning his "equipment" is a little faulty, his deck of cards is missing one or two. Same inexact, or general, meaning as "he's off his rocker."

    In no time at all you're hearing "he's a few bricks short of a full load." The form of the expression has become the template for the "variations on a theme" format of slang expressions. To give the "full deck" version a little twist, you vary the content.

    So in a sense the trolley metaphor mutated into a rocker metaphor when applied to a more sedentary person, or became "off his feed" for use in a more rural context. A stonemason might say "he's a bubble off plumb," and it would be the same format of expression even though someone unfamiliar with tools used in construction might not understand it. More to the point, there is no literal comparison to be forced between contact wheels on trolleys-- and spirit levels or plumb bobs or T-squares.

    Any more than bricks are being compared to dominoes or playing cards-- or french fries in a Happy Meal.
  6. susanna76 Senior Member

    So wait, in the expression "off your trolley," what exactly is the trolley? Here's one instance of several from David Lodge's novel Nice Work: "What the hell was he going to do with this woman every Wednesday for the next two months? Baxter must be off his trolley, sending someone like that. Or was it a plot?"
  7. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    Susanna, I reckon that the "trolley" in "off your trolley" means "head", or "mind", particularly as the slang BrE "to be trolleyed" means "to be drunk" - but don't ask me what connection there is between a trolley and a head!
  8. djmc Senior Member

    English - United Kingdom
    In England "off his rocker" is common and has been used since the late nineteenth century - Partridge gives a reference to OED 1897 the rocker is the rocker of a rocking horse. I would thought that "off his trolly" would be a derivative. The first time I came across the latter was in the play "Educating Rita" from the 1970's.
  9. susanna76 Senior Member

    djmc: So "off his trolley" is rather new. Interesting. I've never seen it before coming across it several times in David Lodge's writing from the eighties.
    sound shift: So trolley is head! Go figure!! So "to be trolleyed" is one thing, and "off your trolley" another :).
  10. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    I don't think "off one's trolley" is all that new, actually...:D

    Here's the [big] OED definition and the first citation:
  11. susanna76 Senior Member

    Thank you, Loob! Where do you guys get this kind of OED entries? Does it require a subscription?
  12. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    I assumed that the trolley in question was a trolleybus. Not sure why. Fall off one's trolley(bus), fall out of one's tree, etc.
  13. djmc Senior Member

    English - United Kingdom
    That sounds reasonable considering the date of first usage. Nevertheless I associate the expression with supermarket trollies. The person so described is like something which has fallen from a supermarket trolly. The OED allows both spellings.
  14. susanna76 Senior Member

    I meant to ask this for a long time. Since the rocker in question is one mostly used by an elderly person, is this phrase mostly used then about older people?
  15. djmc Senior Member

    English - United Kingdom
    I don't think so. Rocking horses are rather for babies and children.
  16. susanna76 Senior Member

    But I thought it was a rocker as in a rocking chair, not a rocking horse.

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