I’m just old enough to remember that, in the 1950’s, clerks in the fine menswear section of department stores wore starched French cuffs. I’m sure they were wearing starched collars, too, but I was just a little kid then and therefore much shorter than the clerks. It was their shirt cuffs, nearer to my eye level, that caught my attention.
In high school, I discovered that a “French cuff” meant that the end of the shirt sleeve was folded back upon itself on both sides. The cuff was then closed in what was called “the kissing style” (ah, the French connection) where the inner sides are pressed together and fastened with a cuff link. I might have muttered my very first curse words while fruitlessly trying to force the “darn” link through those tiny four slit holes.
But it was Mr. Forrest Fruits, my high school speech teacher, who caused me to remember French cuffs to this day. No, he didn’t wear them regularly in class, and, yes, the poor man’s name was “Forrest Fruits.” We students could be quite merciless in ribbing him behind his back (“You can’t see the Forrest for the Fruits” was one of our favorites). Has there ever been a more Dickensian name? And though ironically he wasn’t a dynamic speaker, this speech teacher gave at least one lecture that fascinated us all.
On that particular lecture day, he did indeed wear a spiffy suit complete with French cuffs. His outfit alone was enough to draw our attention, since his gumdrop body shape did not lend itself to stylish duds. He began by modeling his three-piece suit and displaying his dazzling white cuffs. Then he stood behind the podium and began lecturing on the topic of popular speaking techniques in the twentieth century.
He said that in his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s day, from about 1880 to1920, orators were encouraged to give addresses that could last up to two hours, in which every word had been written down and read aloud exactly as it was written in the prepared text. But a new type of oratory emerged in the 1920’s or Jazz Age. The roaring twenties put a premium on spontaneity over heavily scripted remarks.
At first, speakers felt tremendous freedom by being released from reading aloud every word they had written. After a while, however, they realized that this new, modern audience expected not oratory but instead more inspired, informal wit and even occasional repartee with those they were addressing. Some audiences began taunting lecturers who dared to use notes. Without a script in front of them, speakers were feeling insecure.
Mr. Fruits then mentioned how lucky those speakers were to live in an age that, while demanding spontaneous presentations, still expected their speakers to dress formally. I didn’t see the connection. I soon would.
He now left the lectern and began pacing the classroom. “You see, students,” he said, “these speakers became desperate to jot down a few notes before beginning to lecture, just in case spontaneity failed them on stage. But where could they hide these prompts from their audience?”
And now, standing directly in front of us, Mr. Fruits dramatically pulled off his suit jacket, raised his right arm in front of him, made a fist, and began reading aloud from what appeared to be the end of his right shirt sleeve: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth…”
He then walked up and down the aisles, showing us those words that he’d jotted down earlier on his French cuff. “Some insecure but creative speaker back in the 1920’s,” he said, “must have discovered that his stiff white shirt cuff made an ideal writing surface for crib notes. And thus, students,” here he grinned widely, “speaking ‘OFF THE CUFF’ was born.”
Of course I’m grateful to Mr. Fruits for teaching me the origin of such an important occupational term, given my speaking career of the last forty years. But I’m even more grateful to him for teaching me how to draw out a rather simple topic — the origin of a simple phrase — into this very essay of 750 words which you’re now finishing. Thanks to the theatricality and suspenseful nature of his long-ago lecture, I began learning how to master the technique of keeping my readers with me until the very end.
I mean, I THINK I mastered that technique, didn’t I? Yoo-hoo—hello? Are you still there?
I know some of you may be thinking “REALLY? Forrest Fruits? Are you messin’ with me?” And perhaps some may also doubt the veracity of the “off the cuff” derivation, but I swear on Darian’s life that both are as true as true can be.
Let’s just hope that Darian will still be alive to revise, edit, and disperse my next essay with her inimitable efficiency and panache.
Darian writes: Elliot MADE me put that last part in! He's making up for putting my life on the line.