Q From Don Richardson: Would you explain shot his cuffs? I think I know what this means but can find no printed explanation.
A It’s a phrase that’s relatively easy to find in dictionaries and books on idioms. All will tell you the obvious, that to shoot your cuffs is to pull or jerk your shirt cuffs out so that they project beyond the cuffs of your coat. At this point, all the reference books I’ve consulted abandon the reader, leaving him wondering why anybody would do such a thing.
It has long been a precept among tailors — I am intrigued to learn that several guides to good dressing today continue to repeat the opinion — that a properly dressed man should allow about a quarter to half an inch of shirt cuff to peep out of his jacket sleeves, just enough to show his cufflinks. To shoot one’s cuffs is to achieve this desirable state of dress. Since one way to do it is to jerk the shoulders and arms so that the cuffs pop into view, shooting them is a good name for it, in the verb’s sense of “causing something to move suddenly and rapidly in a particular direction”.
As a gesture, it can mean several things. One is described in Susan Lenox by David Graham Phillips, dated 1917: “And he ‘shot’ his cuffs with a gesture of careless elegance that his cuff links might assist in the picture of the ‘swell dresser’ he felt he was posing.” But it is often a mark of displaced emotion, especially nervousness: “As he talked, David continuously straightened his clothes — he smoothed his tie, shot his cuffs, snugged his collar, pulled up the creases in his trousers from his thighs. Then he’d cross one ankle over his knee, pull up his sock, cross the other ankle.” (Michael Crichton, Prey, 2003.)
A man often dresses formally and makes an effort at some difficult time, such as an interview for a job or meeting for the first time the father of the woman he is proposing to marry. A desire to look one’s best is important and helps one’s courage. You can tell how significant it is for the whole man to look as polished as possible under such circumstances by the number of times that descriptions also refer to smoothing his hair, adjusting his tie or collar, brushing up his shoes, neatening his clothes, straightening his shoulders or in other ways making sure he looks smart.
Various other emotions are also recorded: “Captain von Heumann would twirl his mustaches into twin spires, shoot his white cuffs over his rings, and stare at me insolently through his rimless eyeglasses.” (E W Hornung, The Amateur Cracksman, 1899); “Gurin rose wearily to his feet and shot his cuffs by way of showing impatience.” (Abe and Mawruss by Montague Glass, 1909); “He shot his cuffs fiercely. The British Lion was roused.” (P G Wodehouse, The Intrusion of Jimmy, 1910); “Everything about him, from his stiff upper lip to his shoot-the-cuffs manner, implied take-charge authority and competence.” (Simon Hawke, The Wizard of Whitechapel, 1988).