The Grammarphobia Blog

Chalk scratching on a blackboard

Q: I’m bothered by a new (and dare I say sloppy) way of expressing oneself that I hear on radio and TV: “first off” as opposed to “first of all.” This is a pet peeve of mine and it’s like chalk scratching on a blackboard. I wonder what your take is.

A: The adverbial phrase “first off” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “colloquial,” meaning that it’s more commonly used in speech than in writing.

It originated in the United States, the OED says, and means “at the first blush, in the first place, to begin with.”

Mark Twain was apparently the first to use the expression in print, in his novel A Tramp Abroad (1880): “First-off, I thought it would certainly give me the botts.” (By “botts” he meant worms or a similar bowel complaint.)

“First off” soon established itself as a familiar idiomatic expression. The OED has these other citations:

1897, from William Dean Howells’s novel The Landlord at Lion’s Head: “First off, you know, I thought I’d sell to the other feller.”

1910, from a novel of the Old West, William Macleod Raine’s Bucky O’Connor: “Four’s right. First off Neil, then the fellow I took to be the Wolf.”

1915, from the Nation: “Men of science … no longer admit first off what simple good sense shows to us.”

A similar adverbial phrase, “first of all,” the one you prefer, is much older.

It was first recorded in print in 1553, according to the OED, in Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique: “[He] must fasten his mynde firste of all, upon these five especiall pointes.”

In our opinion, both expressions are dull. We wouldn’t recommend beginning a speech with either one (or with  “first and foremost”).

But as for your pet peeve, “first off” is thoroughly entrenched in the language and it’s here to stay. You don’t have to use it yourself, but you’ll have to live with the sound of chalk scratching on a blackboard.

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