English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Off-putting and down-putting

Q: People who are put off by a remark say it’s “off-putting.” Can a put-down be described as “down-putting”?

A: Would you believe that the word “off-putting” is more than 600 years old? Honest.

In the 1300s, “off-putting” was a noun meaning “the action of reproving,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that “off-putting” became the adjective we know today.

We’ll begin at the beginning.

The OED’s earliest example for the noun (written “of putting” in Middle English) comes from this dramatic passage in the Polychronicon, a historical chronicle written in Latin in the mid-1300s by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden and translated later in the century by John de Trevisa:

“Þanne he [Sergius] hym self occupiede þe poperiche. And in wreche of his of puttynge he made hem take up Formosus þe pope out of his grave, and smyte of his heed, and þrewe þe body into Tyber.” (“Then Sergius himself occupied the papacy. And in vengeance for the off-putting of Formosus, he made them take the late pope out of his grave, and cut off his head, and throw the body into the Tiber.”)

That meaning of the noun—a reproval or a rebuke, you might say a “putdown”—is now rare, the OED says.

Also rare is this this wider meaning, which the dictionary says appeared in the late 1400s: “The action or an act of delaying, a postponement, procrastination; a fobbing off, an evasion.”

This sense of the word was in use in Scottish English from the late 1400s until modern times, according to Oxford citations. This 1833 example from Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal has a distinct Scottish flavor: “Weel, mistress, … this off-putting will do nae langer.”

Today we almost never find “off-putting” used as a noun. In the sense of a delay or an evasion, English speakers are likely to use “this putting off” instead of “this off-putting.”

As an adjective, “off-putting” originally meant procrastinating or delaying, a sense chiefly used in Scottish English and now rare, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from 1808, when a Scottish dictionary said the term meant “delaying, trifling, dilatory.” As late as 1931, the Scottish National Dictionary gave this lively example: “Gan’ away and dae yer work, ye affputting slut.”

As we said above, the adjective “off-putting” didn’t take on its modern sense until the mid-20th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “that puts one off; unpleasant, disconcerting, repellent.”

The term is derived, the OED says, from the phrasal verb “to put off,” which since the late 1300s has meant not only to defer or postpone but also to drive away or repel.

Oxford’s earliest example of “off-putting” in its modern sense is from a 1930s novel: “Your face isn’t in the least off-putting, except when you’re cross.” (From Illyrian Spring, 1935, by Mary Dolling, writing under the name Ann Bridge.)

The dictionary has these among its other examples:

“‘Shut up about Ronald,’ Tim said. ‘It’s jolly off-putting.’ ” (From Muriel Spark’s novel Bachelors, 1960.)

“The only off-putting factor is the price.” (From the Classical Review, 1986.)

“Kyle finds it a little offputting, especially when he’s only wearing his boxers.” (From Cult Times, February 2001.)

You ask whether “down-putting” is similarly becoming an adjective, perhaps derived from the phrasal verb “to put down” or from the noun “put-down,” which dates from the 1930s.

So far, no. The only examples of “down-putting” we’ve found used adjectivally are humorous uses online.

The OED has two lone examples of “down-putting,” but both are nouns and very old.

One is dated circa 1440 and uses “down-putting” in the sense of “abasing”: “Downe puttyng and a-lowenge of his euencristen” (“Down-putting and lowering of his fellow Christian”).

The other is from circa 1556 and uses the noun to mean “downfall): “To them who were the occasion of his down-putting.”

But the OED does have examples of “put-down” used as an adjective “intended to humiliate or put a person down.” The earliest is from a 1973 issue of the New York Times: “He [Trudeau] doesn’t rise to bait—with choice epithets and that put-down Gallic shrug of his.”

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