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Adam’s off ox

Q From Steve Justino: In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Nick the bartender says something to George Bailey that sounds like ‘And that’s another thing, I don’t know you from Adam’s oft ox’. Am I hearing that correctly? If so, I’ve never heard that expression before. What does it mean?

A Nearly right. It’s actually Adam’s off ox.

Some discussion about this expression followed its use by President Clinton in a news conference in June 1993. It puzzled many American commentators then, because it’s a phrase that is known only in some parts of the USA.

It’s one of a whole set of expressions of which the basic and oldest form is not to know somebody from Adam, meaning that the person is entirely unknown to the speaker. That form is recorded from Britain in a report of a court case at the London Sessions as far back in 1784: “Some man stopped me, I do not know him from Adam”. It’s almost certainly older in the spoken language.

This expression has so long been a familiar idiom that people have felt the need to make it more emphatic. Speakers in various parts of the US have at times commented they don’t know somebody from Adam’s housecat, Adam’s brother, Adam’s foot, and Adam’s pet monkey. Adam’s off ox is easily the most puzzling of these variations to us today, because the days of ox teams are now long past.

The off ox was the one on the off-side of the vehicle. If you stood behind the team looking forwards it was the one on the right-hand side. The driver walked on the left-hand side of the team, with the near-side ox at his right shoulder. He would get to know the personality and idiosyncrasies of this ox very well. However, the off ox was hidden behind the near-side one, and was yoked to it so that it could do nothing but follow it. So the off ox was — figuratively at least — less well known.

The term is found in print from 1894 onwards, but must surely be older. One of its appearances was in Flying U Ranch by B M Bower, of about 1914: “Andy shook hands all round, swore amiably at Weary, and advanced finally upon Miguel. ‘You don’t know me from Adam’s off ox,’ he began genially, “but I know you, all right, all right.”

The Dictionary of American Regional English has a nice map of its distribution, based on the research it did in the 1960s. Its informants then must all have been older people. It is now even less well known, except from the occasional old film and US presidential folk idiom.

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Page created 12 Oct 2002; Last updated 06 Jul 2004