"The alarm just went off"
October 7, 2005 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Why do people say "The alarm just went off" when really it just came on?
posted by spooksie to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
Maybe a similar construct to a bomb "going off", where there is no "on" state.
posted by smackfu at 8:15 AM on October 7, 2005

Simply because one meaning of the phrase "to go off" is to become active, or to begin to function. You're confusing this with the other meaning of the word "off". Same applies to "to set off", as in to start or to trigger.
posted by Decani at 8:21 AM on October 7, 2005

Answers.com claims that the idiom "go off" or "went off" developed in the late 1500s and originally referred to the slipping of a gun's hammer such that the gun fired unexpectedly.
posted by RichardP at 8:35 AM on October 7, 2005

Oh wait, now that I reread that Answers.com entry I'm not sure it actually explains the origin of the original phrase "go off" or "went off."
posted by RichardP at 8:42 AM on October 7, 2005

Sudden bursts of energy are often described as "going off", like a bomb, gun, rocket, fireworks, or booby traps. It's the idea of a momentary springing to life from a resting position, rather than moving from a steady-inactive to steady-active state. Alarms that stay "on" for long periods of time are described as being "on".
posted by 4easypayments at 8:43 AM on October 7, 2005

To me, 'went off' has always been used to describe going from quiet to loud. I, and others with a similar upbringing, use it for people, too. For example, we'd use the expression 'went off on one' to describe somebody who was calm, suddenly starting to rant and rave.
posted by veedubya at 8:57 AM on October 7, 2005

Life is simpler if you remember this rule: don't look for logic or consistency in prepositional phrases or idioms.
posted by kimota at 9:46 AM on October 7, 2005

I have found myself saying: "can you shut that light back on?"
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:06 PM on October 7, 2005

In Brooklyn, I've heard them say to 'close' the light.
posted by Goofyy at 12:21 PM on October 7, 2005

I'm curious what the alarm clock's directions say. Is there any reference to the alarm "going off" or "turning on"?
posted by clh at 3:49 PM on October 7, 2005

clh, I believe usually the technical description is "sounds", e.g. "when the alarm sounds ..."

The off here is used in the sense of "away", cf. "run off". The electrical sense of "on/off" derives from the position of the switch, so is a much later development.
posted by dhartung at 6:37 PM on October 7, 2005

It's like the Southern "cut on" as a back-formation of "cut off." I've heard many North Carolinians say "cut on the light."
posted by Vidiot at 5:54 AM on October 9, 2005

In Nepal I often heard people say "close the light" (or the radio, television). I can't recall if they said open for turning on or not.
posted by blueberry at 1:34 AM on October 11, 2005

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