Where did the phrase “Adam’s off ox” come from and What does it mean?

The form commonly used is “not to know one from Adam’s off ox,” meaning to have not the slighest information about the person indicated.

The saying in any form, however, is another of the numerous ones commonly heard but of which no printed record has been found.

But in 1848 the author of a book on Nantucketisms recorded a saying then in use on that island, “Poor as God’s off ox,” which, he said, meant very poor. It is possible that on the mainland “Adam” was used as a euphemistic substitute.

The off ox, in a yoke of oxen, is the one on the right of the team. Because it is the farthest from the driver it cannot be so well seen and may therefore get the worst of the footing.

It is for that reason that “off ox” has been used figuratively to designate a clumsy or awkward person.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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