Orsam Books

Lord Orsam versus the Dictionary

There's nothing I enjoy more than having an argument with a dictionary.  

This is the first half of the entry giving examples of 'one off' from the Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition, 1989). 


The first recorded example, as we can see, is supposed to be from a 1934 issue of the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen which refers to 'splendid one-off pattern'

However, with the greatest respect to the O.E.D., that's wrong.  The volume cited, number XXVI (no. 26), contains the proceedings of the institute from the years 1932-1933.  I haven't been able to get hold of this volume but I have established that the extract cited in the O.E.D. is from an article entitled 'Plaster Patterns in General Foundry Practice' by Robert Ballantine which first appeared in the Foundry Trade Journal of 8 December 1932.  Here is the full paragraph:


Not only do we have here the sentence cited by the O.E.D.: 'A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time, and in many cases encountered stucco patterns have been swept up, taken to the foundry and cast, while a similar job in wood was being built up methodically', but we also have an earlier sentence which says: 'The extremes are in the rule where stucco is mostly used, that is, in the making of patterns for one or two off, and in the making of master patterns for standard metal ones.'  The use of 'two off' goes back, of course, to the origins of 'one off' as a mere indication of quantity and is clearly something which survived in the world of pattern making into the 1930s (and beyond) even though 'two off', or any other number 'off', has never made it into general use in the English language.

We find another example of something similar in the same article when Ballantine says:


As we can see, Ballantine uses the expression 'a 4-off job' here.  A little bit later in the article he says that, 'should it be a one-off job, it can be run up in stucco, or even for three or four castings; and if it be a standard job it can be run up as a stucco pattern and a metal pattern made from it.'  This confirms again that the opposite of a 'one-off job' was a 'standard job' (see my 'One Off Article').

Anyway, we've now moved the use of the expression 'one-off pattern' forward by two whole years from when the O.E.D. says it was first used.  So that should make Robert Smith very happy! (don't tell him anyone!!!)

The second example given in the O.E.D. is from the 1935 Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Vol 39:

'One off per machine does not give us much opportunity for reducing production costs'.

This struck me, as I'm sure it strikes you, as not being an example of 'one-off' to mean unique, special or unrepeated.  I wanted to check the context, so consulted the original journal.  This is what I found in the original 1935 article which is entitled 'Aircraft Production Methods' by W.G. Gibson (underlining added):

'So much for components in general; now a few words about detail parts.

Naturally, having to produce them and being held responsible for the final cost, we think there are too many and we feel that a little ingenuity on the part of the designer would help in this respect.  Fig. 7 shows a junction point using three plate fittings (actually there are two of each).  I will agree that all these plates are simple to produce, and are not in themselves expensive parts, but I submit that one joint plate incorporating the bearing could be designed, and only one-third the number of press tools and drilling jigs would then be required.  The inspection processes, with their accompanying advice notes and other records, would be cheaper, and, since it is cheaper to locate one fitting than to locate three, assembly charges would be reduced. (N.B. - This example was on an experimental aircraft which never went into production).'

Then the crucial paragraphs: 

'Fig 8 shows how a very simple design alteration made a simple press tool job of three hand-made plates, and actually saved weight.  A very simple example, but the saving is obvious.

Generally speaking, I think we can say that we have no objection to complicated parts, providing we get enough of the same sort to pay for tooling and production investigation.  One off per machine does not give us much opportunity for reducing production costs.  The designer will reply: "Oh yes! But if you can get an order for 100 aircraft you can make 100."  The answer is that we seldom get an order for 100, and secondly that we we do, we generally have to split these into batches of say, 25, in order to get away quickly with the job.'  

While it's not entirely clear (and seeing figures 7 and 8 doesn't really help much), Gibson appears simply to be saying that taking one part off each machine does not give much opportunity for reducing production costs.  He is, thus, not using 'one off' to mean either unique or a quantity.

One could say that this is probably an early example of muppetry by the compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary, albeit in relation to the 1930s rather than the 1880s!

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't include the 1935 example in its electronic edition so perhaps it was realized that it was a false instance. 


Lord Orsam
27 October 2019