Orsam Books

Off and On Again

When I started my research into the origins of 'one off' in 2016, there weren't many twentieth century newspapers digitized on the British Newspaper Archive.  Now it has a good selection which allows us to see very clearly the explosion of the use of expressions involving 'one-off' during the post-Second World War period.  We will come to these in due course but the BNA also allows us to locate some pre-Second World War examples of 'one off' being used outside of pattern making during the 1930s albeit very much still within the context of engineering and manufacturing. 

Thus, an advertisement for borers in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 18 September 1937 asked for 'men accustomed to one off jobs'.   An advertisement in the Yorkshire Post of 18 September 1937 stated, 'Horizontal Borers: Wanted in South Midlands for boring large castings, used to one off jobs'.  A company called Covmac advertising in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 23 March 1939 asked for a 'first-class Borer, used to one-off jobs.'   A borer, incidentally, was someone whose job it was to bore holes.

An advertisement in the Derby Daily Telegraph of 5 July 1948 by 'Bradshaw' offered 'Turning, Milling, Drilling, Welding, one-off jobs or quantity: trade enquiries welcomed'.  An ad for a situation vacant by the Engineering Department of the College of Aeronautics in Cranfield, placed in the Bedfordshire Times of 24 December 1948, wanted a planning engineer with experience of 'planning and co-ordinating the manufacture of Laboratory apparatus, covering all classes of engineering and particularly "one-off" jobs.' 

During 1951, various newspapers, such as the Rugby Advertiser of 5 January 1951, contained advertisements for a coppersmith at 'a small one off type shop' in the Midland area.  The Western Mail ran an ad by the British Federal Welder and Machine Co. Ltd on 20 September 1957 for 'Planning and Estimating Engineers for one off type Special Machines'.   An advert in the The Aberdeen Evening Express of 17 April 1961 by the Loughborough Glass Company for glassblowing jobs said, 'The jobs will appeal particularly to Glassblowers with a lively interest in producing "one-offs" to drawings rather than in mass production'.

The Birmingham Daily Post of 5 August 1964 carried an advert for a 'man with shop floor experience in light/medium engineering, with an accent on the one-off type work.'  The Coventry Evening Telegraph of 9 March 1966 published an advert by Drilling & Prospecting International Limited for a welder which was said to be 'a job for an above-average tradesman who is interested in "one off" type of manufacture and has the skill, experience and ingenuity to work with a wide range of materials.'  A news story in the Coventry Evening Telegraph on 20 March 1967 about a fallen cross at Coventry Cathedral contained a quote from the sculptor of the cross, Geoffrey Clarke, who said it had been 'cast in sections in moulds of a "one off" type and was then welded.'  An advert in The Birmingham Daily Post of 25 April 1970 for a new houses stated that because, 'Bryant are the Big Builders with big resources, both technological and financial, you get "one off " type designs and superb construction at production-run prices.' An advert in the Reading Echo of 22 May 1974 by C.F. Taylor (Woodworkers) Limited, offered, 'our very flexible services from the "ONE OFF" type of work to the extensive long term contracts on which we are engaged from time to time.'

However, the first appearance in any newspaper in the British Newspaper Archive of 'one off type' outside of the context of manufacturing and construction work, or advertisements for similar, is found in the sports section of the Liverpool Echo of 13 July 1974 which carried a quote from the then Coventry F.C. manager, Gordon Milne, referring to the Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, as 'a one-off type of person.'  

If we exclude advertisements regarding industrial plants'of a one off nature' which ran in the West London Observer during 1955 and 1956, and an advertisement in the Liverpool Echo of 11 December 1967 for a sheet worker required to do work of 'a one off nature', the first general use (i.e. in a news story) of 'one off nature'  found in the BNA is in the Birmingham Daily Post of 6 January 1975 which referred to the forthcoming participation in the Tour of Dean Rally by Russell Brookes of Inkberrow in an Austin Allegro 1300 built by Blazespeed of Birmingham which was fitted with a 5-port engine and twin carburettors as being 'very much of a one-off nature'.  

Another expression which can be found in the 1950s is 'one off basis' but again only in manufacturing advertisements.  Thus, an advert for a general manager in the Birmingham Daily Post of 1 July 1958 stated that, 'Candidates must  have held responsibility for the production of light engineering equipment, on small batch or one off basis.'  A West Bromwich company advertising for skilled machinists in the Walsall Observer of 15 April 1966 for machinists described itself as 'making close limit, high quality products on a one-off basis'  while a request by Ratcliffe Tool Company Limited for an experienced man to set up a production team in the Harrow Observer of 2 June 1966 called for someone able to plan and control production in 'a firm manufacturing a wide range of engineering products on a "one off" basis'

Outside of these sorts of adverts, it's not until 1 December 1970 that we find the expression in a normal news story with the Aberdeen Press & Journal of that date containing a quote from the director of Oxfam complaining that floods in East Pakistan were not being regularly and consistently planned for but were being dealt with 'on a one-off basis.'   

In respect of the expression 'one off design', the first appearance in a BNA newspaper is in the Birmingham Daily Post of 31 March 1964, in a letter from a building surveyor who referred to the house of his managing director as a '"one off" design'.

Now consider the below: 

Here are the very earliest examples of each of the following expressions currently to be found in newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive (when searched in September 2019):  

One-off affair - Birmingham Daily Post, 20 February 1965 

One-off play  - The Stage, 1 April 1965

One-off drama - The Stage, 1 April 1965 

One-off programme - Birmingham Daily Post, 7 August 1967

One-off film - The Stage, 27 June 1968 

One-off character - Middlesex County Times, 24 January 1969 

One-off show - The Stage, 24 July 1969 

One-off opportunity Liverpool Echo, 4 September 1969 (advert for an Industrial Engineer) 

One-off performance [s] - Birmingham Daily Post, 9 September 1969 

One-off hit - Coventry Evening Telegraph, 30 September 1969 

One-off payment - Illustrated London News, 6 June 1970

One-off situation - Birmingham Daily Post, 14 March 1972 

One-off recording - Reading Evening Post, 16 June 1972   

One-off game - Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1973 

One-off event - Coventry Evening Telegraph, 6 June 1973 

One-off match - Sports Argus, 27 August 1973  

One-off result - Sports Argus, 29 September 1973 

One-off documentary - Belfast Telegraph, 19 January 1974 

One-off market - New Ross Standard, 8 March 1974 

One-off broadcasting - Daily Mirror, 11 September 1974 

One-off occasion - Liverpool Echo, 8 November 1974 

One-off incident - Buckinghamshire Examiner, 12 September 1975 

One-off decision - Birmingham Daily Post, 18 June 1975 

One-off remark - Central Somerset Gazette, 30 October 1975 

One-off concept - Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 1 November 1975 

One-off musical - The Stage, 6 November 1975 

One-off moment [of madness] - Birmingham Daily Post, 16 December 1975 

One-off example - Birmingham Daily Post, 10 February 1976 

One-off broadcast - Aberdeen Evening Express, 30 March 1976 

One-off success - Cheshire Observer, 14 May 1976

One-off interview - The Stage, 23 September 1976 

One-off thing - Belfast Telegraph, 9 August 1977

One-off individual [building] - Cheshire Observer, 6 January 1978

One-off murder - Reading Evening Post, 7 September 1978 

One-off achievement - Long Eaton Advertiser, 5 October 1978 

One-off idea - Coventry Evening Telegraph, 20 March 1979 

One-off song - Belfast Telegraph, 19 November 1982

One-off marketing - Aberdeen Press & Journal, 7 June 1983 

One-off entry [fee] - Buckinghamshire Examiner, 30 December 1983 

One-off speech - Aberdeen Press and Journal, 17 January 1984

One-off proposal - Aberdeen Press and Journal, 8 December 1984 

One-off revue - Kingston Informer, 16 April 1987 

One-off instance - Aberdeen Press & Journal, 17 November 1987 

One-off romance - Wexford People, 21 December 1989

One-off announcement - Reading Evening Post, 3 July 1991 

One-off adventure - Sunday Life, 22 September 1991 

One-off defeat - Newcastle Journal, 12 March 1992 

One-off experience - Aberdeen Evening Express, 8 June 1994

One-off review - Dublin Evening Herald, 5 August 1994

One-off comment - Crawley News, 10 June 1998 

One-off debate - Irish Independent, 31 July 1999 

One-off statement - Dublin Evening Herald, 10 November 2006 

One-off episode - Irish Independent, 2 January 2007 

There is a clear and, indeed, remarkable pattern to be seen here I would suggest.  The majority of the expressions involving 'one off' were all published for the first time in these digitized newspapers in the ten years between 1967 and 1977, and none earlier than 1965.  That's the period when there is an explosion of the use of the expression 'one off', being used in a 'metaphorical' sense, following a decade in which one finds it confined mainly to newspaper advertisements in respect of manufacturing or engineering jobs and items (in a literal sense) or, at best, news stories about manufacturing or engineering subjects.

Bear in mind that there are over 3 million newspapers scanned by the BNA in the period 1800 to 1949 with just over 262,000 in the period 1950 to 2019 so the results are the total reverse of what would be expected if 'one off' (as in, for example, 'one off instance') was in any way a nineteenth century expression.  It's nothing short of extraordinary that no newspaper contains any of these expressions before 1965 if they existed during that entire period going back to 1888.  It is the clearest evidence, which anyone should be able to accept, that they did not.

One of the above examples is particularly instructive.  As mentioned in the list, the earliest use of the expression 'one off play' is found in an article (by Marjorie Bilbow) in The Stage of 1 April 1965.  This contains the quote by Cecil Clarke, Head of Plays at ATV, that: 'I'm responsible solely for what has come to be known in television as the "one-off" play'.   He also said, 'I've been engaged by ATV to put on one-off plays, one-off drama.'  He continued by saying: 'I'm convinced there's still a place for these single plays, very much so. And I think it's up to people in my sort of job to make quite sure that the one-off play maintains that place in television.'  As we can clearly see, therefore, a 'one-off play' was synonymous with a 'one-off drama' and a 'single play.'  

Similarly, a headline in a subsequent edition of The Stage of 28 July 1966 read: 'The single play is so vulnerable it must be loved, guarded and given every chance'.  The article began: 'The start of  the eleventh year of ABC's Armchair Theatre was an occasion for rejoicing on the part of everybody who is concerned for the  continuation of the single play.'  But it continued: 'Yet when one thinks of the accumulated anxiety that lies behind any "one off" play  - from the author's painful task of creation to the producer's agonised uncertainty whether his choice was right...'   A bit later in the article it is stated that there was a need for 'continual vigilance against pressures that are and may be put on drama departments to cut down on their output of single plays.'   It was also said that, 'Only with the single play is the writer free to use his imagination to the full.' Hence, we can see again that a 'single play' was definitely synonymous with a 'one-off play'.

It's interesting, therefore, that in The Stage of 23 August 1928, we find it stated that, 'It is likely that half of the audience has never heard of these old plays, much less of the recent London failures, which run for a month in town and find their way into repertory after a fruitless search for a single-play touring manager'.  In The Stage of 12 December 1957, it was stated that, for children's programmes on TV for 1958, 'Single plays, usually lasting half-an-hour will be dropped in favour of serials.'   On 23 January 1958, a quote was carried by Owen Reed, who was in charge of BBC Children's Television, which stated that, 'It would be wrong to give the impression that because our serial output is going to be greater we are going to neglect the form of the single play.'  In an issue of 27 December 1962, it was stated that, 'The first single play from BBC-tv Drama in 1963, "Anna Christie," will be produced by Rudolph Cartieron Friday, Jan 4'.  This all suggests that the expression 'a one-off play' was not in use at all in the English language during the early 1960s, otherwise surely The Stage would at some point have referred to a 'one-off play' rather than always to 'single' plays. 

And there's more. On 27 June 1963, we find it stated in The Stage by producer Douglas Allen that, 'An ordinary single play is great fun to do, but it's just one evening's entertainment'.   Then, in The Stage of 16 July 1964, in an article by Marjorie Bilbrow, Philip Mackie of Grenada was quoted saying that drama on television was getting dull and that, 'One reason for this was that the series was taking over.  I don't mean the serials. I mean things like No Hiding Place - where you get a separate, quite self-contained play each week. Viewers were coming to look forward to these as they had once looked forward to the single play.'  He also said that, 'A series gives me much more chance to put the Mackie stamp on it than a single play does' . And then in the issue of 19 November 1964, it is stated that in an editorial that, 'the single play seems to give rise to a great deal of concern not only to the BBC but also to many of our readers' .  On 26 November 1964, in another article by Marjorie Bilbrow, we find a quote from Coronation Street producer Harry Kershaw that, 'It just so happens that for the last ten or twelve years it has been the single play which brings you the publicity, brings you the reviews (good or bad), brings you to the notice of the reading public - not necessarily the viewing public.' . The issue of 31 December 1964 referred to 'the continuing good health of single plays', while, as late as 28 January 1965, The Stage reported that Lord Willis had called on both the BBC and independent television 'to double their output of single plays.

As we have seen, it wasn't until April 1965 that The Stage (digitized copies of which are on the British Newspaper Archive going all the way back to 1880) started to refer to a single play as a 'one off play' or a 'one off drama'.  Between 1965 and 1999 there are over 80 mentions in the Stage to a 'one off play' or plays, with none prior to 1965.   Again this is dramatic and easily understandable evidence of how 'one off' outside of a manufacturing context only really entered the mainstream English language in the 1960s. 

The results from the BNA also match what is found in other databases.  The Times, for example, contains mentions of 'one off' between 1944 and 1964 but they are all in a manufacturing context, usually with reference to one-off jobs and similar.  The first appearance I located of the expression outside of a manufacturing context in that newspaper is in the Times of 11 May 1964 in which it is stated of fast train speeds that, 'The new generation of railwaymen tend to regard these as "one off" achievements'.  There are some other references to 'one offs' over the next couple of years, but all in a manufacturing context and it's not until 8 July 1966 that we find another use outside of this context, being mention of giro account owners being able to make 'one off payments'

In the following year, for the first time in the Times, a person was described in as a one-off.  This was in the edition of the Times of 18 January 1967 when, in a clear example of metaphorical usage, the leader of the Liberal party, Jo Grimand, was described as 'a one-off model'.  Not as a 'one-off' it should be stressed but as a 'one-off model'.    When one searches the BNA for 'one-off model' one finds it repeatedly and exclusively applied to motor cars - manufactured items - between 1952 and 1967 (and beyond) so the Times was, in effect, comparing Grimand to a motor car. (One minor exception to this is a book review in the Birmingham Daily Post of 13 December 1960 which refers to a book about motor cars by J.R. Buckley, entitled 'Cars of the Connoisseur' as 'an effort which is more in the form of a "one off" model'. ) Later uses for individuals would, of course, not use the word 'model' but just describe people as one-offs, although in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 31 March 1972 it is said of magistrate Edgar May that, 'His house, mature and well-rounded in character, like himself, is a one-off model of grace, style and quiet dignity'...  

Continuing with the Times, we find in an issue of 4 August 1967 a reference to 'one-off social occasions' and, on 9 September 1967, to Wilfred De'Ath's 'strictly one-off interviews with the previously inarticulate' .  From this period on, there are a lot of mentions of 'one-off', still mainly but not exclusively in a manufacturing context, and, as I've mentioned elsewhere in September 1969, Thames TV broadcast a series of interviews by Fred Dineage in a programme entitled 'One Off'. The first episode was broadcast on 1 September 1969 and, perhaps by coincidence, on 3 September 1969 it was said in the Times Diary of producer Peter Morley at London Weekend Television that he 'will produce one-off programmes rather than series, even series of "specials".

Here is a full list from the Times, which was first published in 1785, showing the earliest use of each of the below expressions (outside of adverts):

One-off affair - 16 August 1971

One-off play - 5 September 1970

One-off drama - 2 August 1989

One-off programme - 27 June 1972

One-off film - 2 September 1989

One-off character - 31 July 1983

One-off show - 5 June 1981

One-off opportunity 16 September 1986

One-off performance - 7 July 1981

One-off hit - 21 March 1987

One-off payment - 22 November 1971

One-off situation - 24 December 1971

One-off recording - None

One-off game - 9 September 1977

One-off event - 21 November 1979

One-off match - 3 February 1981  

One-off result - 29 March 1989

One-off documentary - 29 February 1992

One-off market [research] - 22 November 2002

One-off broadcasting - None

One-off occasion - 24 November 1979 

One-off incident - 20 May 1977

One-off decision - 28 June 1975

One-off remark - None

One-off concept - 28 August 1987

One-off musical - 31 January 1990

One-off moment - None

One-off example - 8 April 1986

One-off broadcast - 29 December 2006

One-off success - 2 August 1988

One-off interview - 30 April 1993

One-off thing - 30 September 1976

One-off individual [purchase] - 9 October 1997

One-off murder - 28 June 2003 

One-off achievement - 4 October 1988

One-off idea - 27 December 2008

One-off song - 6 April 1989

One-off marketing - None

One-off entry [fee] - 8 October 1997

One-off speech - None

One-off proposal - 22 March 1990

One-off revue - None 

One-off instance - None

One-off romance - None

One-off announcement - 15 July 1995

One-off adventure - 11 December 1982 

One-off defeat - 5 December 1996 

One-off experience - 25 January 1991

One-off review - None

One-off comment - None

One-off debate - None

One-off statement - 7 August 1972

One-off episode - 17 June 1985

I might add that the exclusion of advertisements makes little or no difference to the results.   

In the Guardian and Observer database, which, like the Times database, goes back to the eighteenth century (being first published in 1791), we find the earliest examples of these expressions (outside of adverts, which again makes little or no difference) as follows:

One-off affair - 23 February 1973

One-off play - 10 September 1970 

One-off drama - 10 September 1977

One-off programme - 22 February 1972

One-off film - 18 September 1977

One-off character - 28 May 1978 

One-off show - The Stage, 6 June 1975

One-off opportunity 15 May 1986

One-off performance - 26 February 1969

One-off hit - 30 December 1977

One-off payment - 18 June 1974

One-off situation - 25 August 1974

One-off recording - 29 May 2001

One-off game - 16 November 1977

One-off event - 25 June 1977

One-off match - 22 January 1981 

One-off result - 21 December 1983

One-off documentary - 10 July 1977

One-off market - 27 June 2001 

One-off broadcasting - None

One-off occasion - 28 April 1973 

One-off incident - 6 April 1980

One-off decision - 4 May 1971

One-off remark - None

One-off concept - 27 June 1968

One-off musical - 23 December 1977

One-off moment - 15 November 1991

One-off example - 17 June 2000

One-off broadcast - 8 March 1995

One-off success - 5 June 1978

One-off interview - 12 June 1975 

One-off thing - 17 February 1978

One-off individual - 9 February 1998

One-off murder - None 

One-off achievement - 27 July 1986

One-off idea - 18 October 1978

One-off song - 29 March 2002

One-off marketing - 22 December 1991

One-off entry - None

One-off speech - 16 March 2000

One-off proposal - None

One-off revue - None 

One-off instance - None

One-off romance - None

One-off announcement - None

One-off adventure [drama] - 6 September 1986 

One-off defeat - 11 May 1994

One-off experience - 17 June 1983

One-off review - None (outside of a 1993 ad)

One-off comment - None

One-off debate - 28 September 1981

One-off statement - None

One-off episode - 26 August 1985

If you are someone who understands that the Diary is a modern fake, this will all make perfect sense to you but if you are someone who thinks that Diary is old, how do you process this information?  How can you think it is possible for newspapers which are searchable all the way back to the eighteenth century to only start to include these phrases from the 1960s onwards if you also believe that someone could have used the expression 'one off instance' as early as 1888?  You must see that it's simply impossible, right?  It just does not compute.

You can check what I'm saying on any database you like.  At this link here you will find the earliest appearances of all the above expressions in: the Daily Telegraph database (going back to 1855), the Daily Mirror/Daily Express database (going back to 1900) and the Daily Mail database (going back to 1896). The results are exactly same as from the BNA, from the Times and from the Guardian and Observer in the sense that the first appearances of the expressions are highly concentrated in the period from the mid 1960s to the mid-1970s, sometimes later but not earlier. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this remarkable corroborating evidence which is that 'one off' was not an expression in common, mainstream usage in the English language prior to the 1960s.

Let me wrap this up by setting out some earlier examples of the use of 'one off' prior to 1965 (in addition to those set out at the start of this article). 

As cited in my 'One Off Article, a known example of 'one off job' being used outside of pattern making specifically can be found in the Western Daily Press of 6 November 1925.  This was in a reported speech by the President of the Bristol Association of Engineers in which it was said that, 'The difficulties of administration in general shop would be easily realised the chief job of which was the "one off" job, involving an estimate, special designing to fit the case, high cost, colossal overhead charges, much anxiety and little profit.  However, the job had to be done.' 

Continuing the theme of examples outside of the world of pattern making (but for early examples WITHIN pattern making see my 'One Off Article'), we find a few from Google Books as follows:

1940 - 'The facts outlined do not wholly fit in with Mr. Belsey's rather sweeping indictment that "British shipyards and engine shops are mainly organized and run by engineers with a 'one-off, hand-fitted' complex'" (The British Motor Ship).

1941 - 'It was proposed that the production of the casting should be considered from the repetition viewpoint, where batches would be required of one-off, 25-off and 200 or more off...Mr H. FORREST said they had to consider a casting which may come along for one off and then later develop into an order for 25, 50, or several thousand.  While they may "get away with it" for one off, new problems arose if they had to make more, and the firm giving the large order probably required a reduction in price for quantity.  They had to consider first the matter of a job that was insufficient to warrant plate moulding, but which may have more implications when it came to attaining 200 off....Mr. NEATH pointed out that if it were a one-off job the foundry would have to make it in the best method and material available.  This might apply even up to 25 off...THE BRANCH-PRESIDENT said that, personally, he believed that any ordinary foundry  would have to regard it as a special job or else simply refuse it...A MEMBER said he would use dry sand for a one-off job and so eliminate this aspect of sand control. MR. THORNTON, speaking from the repetition point of view, said he worked with very dry sand.' (Proceedings of Institute of British Foundrymen, Report of November meeting of the West Riding of Yorkshire Branch of the Institute of British Foundrymen).

1942 - 'It might well be supposed from the general appearance and detailed inspection that it was a manufactured and not a "one off" product' (Autocar).

1943 - '...he decided to use this model as a pattern, and moulding by method No. 3 as a "one-off " job, with a cake core covering the flange' (The Foundry Trade Journal).

1946 - 'The Taxi Pool was under the command of a large Scot who had such a unique personality that it quite baffles description - definitely what an engineer would call a "one-off job"' ('I Couldn't Care Less' by Anthony Phelps, 1946, cited - in part - in the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th edition, 1982, by Eric Partridge updated by Paul Beale). 

1952 - 'Aircraft of the size of the Brabazon cannot easily be wheeled out hour by hour for the necessary development tests, and such a "one-off " aircraft is not quickly modified to satisfy the A.R.B. requirements.' (The Aeroplane)

1953 - 'But, in spite of their equipment and facilities being the equal of those of many manufacturing firms, the fact is that the jobs undertaken are almost all of a "one-off " nature' (Motor Sport).

1954 – '...without making each engine a one-off job which is always such a plague in the matter of service in the field.' (The Oil and Gas Engine Turbine)

1954 - 'In the past when operators were constantly machining jobs of a "one-off " character, when the operation of the machine required the exertion of much muscular effort, when the worker was expected to grind his own tools, set his own machine....'  (The Engineer).

1961 - 'A "one-off" character, his like will not be seen again in Indian aviation.' (The Aeroplane and Astronautics, speaking of the late Wing Commander Hugh Raymond Vaughan-Fowler who had died on 25 September 1961)

1962 - 'Whatever the reason there does seem to be a higher proportion of one-off character jobs and fewer run-of-the-mill status-seekers in St. Louis than in most other similar-sized towns' (In the Wake of the Gemini by Ann Davison).

Other than these few examples, and others involving 'one off jobs', we find the remaining expressions in Google books involving 'one off' are from 1965 onwards.  There is simply no other explanation for this phenomenon other than that, as I have explained, the evolution of the phrase was such that 'one off' started to move out of literal references to 'one off jobs' and the like in technical manufacturing and engineering publications in the mid 1960s and entered the mainstream English language which led to an explosion in the use of expressions involving the word or phrase 'one-off' in metaphorical ways whereby a person, thing or event was effectively compared to a now familiar one off job or item and this metaphor was deployed in hundreds of different ways in thousands of publications but not significantly before the 1960s. 

It's particularly interesting to see that in 1946 an individual was referred to in a memoir not as a 'one off' but as a 'one off job'  Moreover, it was stated that this was how an engineer would have described that individual, providing the clearest possible example that 'one off job' was then regarded as engineer speak.  It also shows clearly that people were not yet, in 1946, being referred to as 'one offs'. Similarly, in 1961, Wing Commander Hugh Raymond Vaughan-Fowler was referred to as having a 'one off character' but was not called a 'one off' as would later happen As we've seen, in 1967, the Liberal politician Jo Grimand was referred to as a 'one off model' , while, in 1974, Bill Shankly was referred to as a 'one off type'. This further suggests that people were still not yet being referred to consistently as 'one offs'.  Having said this, the Daily Telegraph of 9 May 1964 contains a reference to a sailor called Charles McLendon, of whom it was said, 'McLendon is, perhaps, one of the rarest - a "sport", a one-off.'   This would appear to be on of the earliest uses, if not the earliest, of 'one-off' on its own to describe a person. 

Of course, we know from the British Bee Journal of 29 March 1975 (once famously mistaken for an 1882 publication) that a well-known, but recently deceased, individual in the bee-keeping world called Francis Padmore (a.k.a. "Paddy") was referred to as a 'one off' .  We also know, as mentioned above, that there was a Thames TV programme entitled 'One Off' which lasted for one week only, with different episodes being broadcast late at night, Monday to Friday, during the week commencing 1 September 1969.  A closer look at the episodes of this short series suggests that the series was about one-off events rather than one-off people. This, for example, is the TV Times listing for the episode on Wednesday 3 September 1969:

One might note the absence of a hyphen in the title of this programme!


There had, for sure, been a growth of usage of the expression in the manufacturing world since the 1930s and 'one off' was understood in the English language in a manufacturing and engineering context to mean an actual produced item or method of production so that we find adverts in the Times from the early 1940s onwards which use the phrase 'one off' and, in respect of motor cars, we do find at least one instance in 1952 when a motor vehicle is referred to outside of an advert as a 'strictly "one-off" model' (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19 November 1952, referring to a specially designed breakdown vehicle made in Coventry) but, being a manufactured product, this is not very different from 'one off job'. It's only when the use of the expression 'one off' is extended to encompass the various more useful metaphorical meanings that it really hits the final phase of its evolution and allows normal English speakers to talk and write of 'one-off events', 'one-off occasions', 'one-off situations' and, critically, 'one-off instances'. But until that final phase in its evolution, these expressions did not exist in the English language which is why they were not used in ANY newspapers until the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, it might be noted that the 1982 edition of the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English updated by Paul Beale (cited above) entirely supports my conclusion by saying of the expression 'One off (job)', when used outside of engineering and manufacturing, that it was a later 20th century expression (defined as the period 1960 to 1980). Hence, it is stated:

'In later C. 20 often used to describe something happening, or likely to happen, once only e.g. the police spokesman re. the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in 1974 'We reckon it was a one-off job'; or 'We'll do it on a one-off basis', a circumlocution for 'We'll try it once'; by late 1970s familiar S.E.' 

This matches what is said in Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable and everything that I have discovered in my own research.  Nothing contradicts it!

It is no longer credible to argue that 'one off instance' could have been written or spoken by anyone in 1888. 

Lord Orsam
27 October 2019 

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