Friday, August 01, 2014

off-piste, off the beaten track/path, off base

Thought I'd dip into the 'to-be-blogged' e-mailbox and click randomly for the next topic, and wouldn't you know it: the thing I clicked on, a five-month-old note from Jan Freeman, is about off-piste, which I used in the last post, leading to some off-piste (and off-piste) discussion in the comments there.

So, here I am discussing it again, but that's (orig. AmE) okay because I like things to have their own posts and because it leads me to a few other off- expressions.

Off-piste has both literal and figurative uses in BrE. A piste (pronounced 'peest') was originally the path beaten by a horse or mule, but was extended to the area of play in fencing and to prepared/designated ski paths. Piste has other uses in French, but English has taken those particular meanings.

The English-French hybrid off-piste usually refers to skiing*; skiing off-piste means leaving the designated path. [Though the UK isn't a great skiing destination, that doesn't keep Brits from skiing--remember: they get a lot more holiday/vacation time than Americans, many go on package holidays where they (AmE) rent/(BrE) hire the equipment, and the Alps are just over there...] I won't say that American skiers never say (off-)piste, but the ones I know don't. They talk of ski runs, not pistes. I assume that the skiing terminology differences between the US and UK stem from the fact that the British rarely ski in their own country and so the terms they use are sometimes borrowed from other European languages. Meanwhile, Americans tend to ski in the US and have come up with their own English words for things. So Americans wear ski bibs (or overalls), while UK skiers have salopettes, from French. Americans do cross-country skiing, but my English in-laws call it langlauf (from German) and others in the UK (more officially) call it Nordic skiing (but also cross-country skiing).

The figurative meaning of off-piste is very British and seems to be relatively recent (the OED doesn't cover the figurative meanings). So, figuratively, off-piste is any deviation from what is expected. Some examples from the interwebs, courtesy of GloBWE:
  • I'm a fan of wine from off-piste regions. 
  • tell them exactly what you want, while still remaining open to any slightly off-piste suggestions 
  • Goldie's debut looked to slick jazz-funk and soul for off-piste inspiration
As you can see here, off-piste works well as an adjective, but it's also used adverbially:
  • To the rescue Domaine Guenault Touraine Sauvignon 2011 (7.99), from the Bougrier's own property -- the conversation was much better, though one of our number went off piste and really rated the Muscadet with it, especially the cockles. 
So in this case one drinker didn't follow the path set by others and had a different wine. (That's an informal BrE use of rated -- to mean 'rated highly'.  I really thought I'd covered that before, but it seems not.)

Similar to off-piste, but not as useful as an adjective, is the phrase off the beaten [noun].  The choice of noun in that phrase differs by continent. The US and Canada prefer off the beaten path at a rate of about 3:1, while the UK and Ireland prefer off the beaten track by about 5:1 (again using GloWBE).

In all these figurative expressions, going off the path gives the connotation of trail-blazing excitement (reminding me of the AmE use of maverick) or, at least, interesting idiosyncrasy.  This is in contrast to another sport(s)-related figurative off- adverbial: (orig.) AmE off base. This comes from baseball, where a player (on the batting team) is safe while on a base. If you're not on a base, a member of the fielding team can put you out by tagging you with the ball (or by some other means). So, in the figurative sense, something that is off base is not where it should be; it's misguided and wrong and may put you in a position where you (or your idea) can be disregarded, as in (still from GloBWE):
  • Dawkins was way off base. He is so busy being the leader of the New Atheism that he has no idea what is going on behind him. 
  • your predictive powers and knowledge of the economy have thus far proven to be so far off base that it's a whole new game in another stadium
The phrase is known in BrE, but much less used, and certainly not with the extension of the baseball metaphor as in the last example.

In the American corpus data, many uses of off base try to pre(-)empt judg(e)ment, as in:
  • feel free to correct me if I'm off base...
  • I may be off base here but...
One can use off-base as an adjective, as in off-base assertions, but it's far more often used as the adverbial phrase. The hyphenated adjective is more common in its literal use for 'off (of) a military base' (e.g. an off-base apartment).

And with that, I'm off...

*It seems only fitting that in a post about off-piste, I should go off piste. And so I will, to share a harrowing tale of third-grade injustice. We were playing a game in class where two teams had to challenge each other to think of and spell words with double letters.  I challenged my opposite to come up with a word with double-i.  The teacher said I couldn't do that unless I could think of a word that had double-i. So I whispered "skiing" in her ear and she said I couldn't use that because it was not an English word. (She was a Norwegian immigrant and claiming it for her language. Never mind the -ing.) When it was my turn again, I challenged my opponent to find a double-u word. Again, the teacher challenged me. Again I had a word in mind (vacuum). But this time she wouldn't let me use it on account of me being a (orig. AmE in this sense) show-off. Look where that's got(ten) me. Forty years of bitterness.


Iain Mac Eochagáin said...

Thanks for the post! Very interesting. I'd no idea anybody anywhere said anything other than 'off the beaten track'. By the way, the italicised link to your separate 'off' post isn't working, at least for me: it redirects me to a page listing the blogs I follow on Blogger.

lynneguist said...

Thanks, Iain. I'd meant to delete that one after I put another link to the same post at 'off (of)', which is lower in the post. So I've done that now!

Dick Hartzell said...

Lynne: so I'm wondering how off-piste is pronounced. If it's French, I assume piste would be pronounced "peest", but since I'm aware of a certain fondness in the UK for altering French pronunciations I wanted to make sure it hadn't been turned into "pissed".

As always, I love reading your blog!

lynneguist said...

Just had the same question on Twitter, so I've added it to the post: 'peest'.

David Crosbie said...

Another off- word which used to be current is off-course.

The course in question was a racecourse and on the racecourse was the only place where people could legally place bets with bookmakers. (It was OK to have an account and place your bets by phones, but that wasn't available to most punters.) A lot of illegal betting was conducted by people sending their bets though bookies' runners.

(I've read about and heard blues about illegal betting though number runners among American Blacks — or was it an integrated racket?)

When these legal restrictions were dropped, the newly legal activity was called off-course betting. Now it's just called betting.

PS Or so I thought. But the OED has a quote from 2002. Apparently off-course betting is subject to a different tax regime than on-course betting.

David Crosbie said...

Lynne, a word with two double letters you could use for your next challenge:


(For those who haven't been to South Africa, it means 'barbecuing'.)

Grhm said...

Dick Hartzell:
This is off-topic (or 'off-piste' if you prefer) but I'm wondering why you started your comment with 'so'? I'd never come across 'so' used like that until this week, and now suddenly I've heard it from four different people, two Americans and two British. (Normally 'so' would mean something like 'therefore', wouldn't it? But used in this way it seems to be little more than throat-clearing.)
Have I been unobservant, or is this a new usage that's spreading like wildfire? Where has it come from?

Anonymous said...

Some American skiers definitely use "off-piste"; the ones I know do, anyway.


Laura said...

Lovely timing! "Off-piste" keeps coming up in my Elizabeth George novels, and now I know I've been pronouncing it wrong in my head! Though it's not an "off-" word, I'd also add "out [of/in] left field" as a baseball metaphor with a similar meaning (I'd say "out in left field" suggests more of a surprise as to where the deviation come from).

As for your off-pissed tangent (or is that redundant?): go back in time and offer your (CanE) grade three teacher "bookkeeper" et al., which as I recall from being a show-off at that age, is the only word family in English with three consecutive sets of double letters. (If anyone knows of another, full credit for my error goes to the Encyclopedia Brown books!)

Laura said...

Darn typo. I did mean to type "off-piste", not "off-pissed". Oops.

Graham said...

Following you off-piste (and possibly falling into an unmarked ravine), I note that I would consider writing ski-ing. I don't think I would nowadays, but I am sure I would have in the past. "To ski" seems to only fairly recently have become fully naturalised as a verb (partly because of the strange look of "skiing" and "skied").

Biochemist said...

To me (BrE) off-piste sounds more wild and dashing than off-the-beaten-track, which signifies something merely obscure. Certainly these each figuratively have spacial and directional aspects.

Off-base: well, now I know it has baseball origin, I get a bit more of the meaning, but I think I always visualise an object with a wobbly base, I.e something likely to fall over.

And just in case you need it, Lynne, you can have five consonants together in matchstick

Geoffrey said...

David Crosbie :

That type of remote wagering is referred to as Off-Track Betting in the US.

Six consonants in a row in Knightsbridge

Dick Hartzell said...

Grhm said...
Dick Hartzell:
This is off-topic (or 'off-piste' if you prefer) but I'm wondering why you started your comment with 'so'? I'd never come across 'so' used like that until this week, and now suddenly I've heard it from four different people, two Americans and two British. (Normally 'so' would mean something like 'therefore', wouldn't it? But used in this way it seems to be little more than throat-clearing.)
Have I been unobservant, or is this a new usage that's spreading like wildfire? Where has it come from?

Yikes. Or crikey. Or blimey. (Take your pick.)

No idea where beginning a sentence with "So ..." comes from. It's hardly a new usage, at least not in the U.S. I suppose I could have begun the sentence with "BTW" or "Incidentally", but instead chose "So". In context I'd guess I began that way as a signifier that I intended only to ask a quick question related directly to the post.

Is it really the case that in Britain if you and another person were planning to drive to a friend's house in the afternoon and the other person stopped by your place first and sauntered into the kitchen to make a sandwich and you were eager to get on the road you definitely would not exclaim "So when are we leaving?!" but instead limit yourself to "When are we leaving?!"

True, that may be an entirely different usage of So from the one I relied on in my first post. Forgive me. I'm mystified -- but that's a common mental state when I read the comments here.

Dick Hartzell said...

Laura said ...

Though it's not an "off-" word, I'd also add "out [of/in] left field" as a baseball metaphor with a similar meaning (I'd say "out in left field" suggests more of a surprise as to where the deviation come from).

Actually, the invariable phrase denoting surprise about something said completely out of context is "out of left field" -- no one in such a case would say "out in left field".

A propos of nothing, the other use of "left field" in conversation is as a dig when someone who seems unlikely to possess any athletic prowess mentions often playing baseball as a child. The sarcastic question is then posed: "Oh, what [position] did you play? Left out?" This cunning locution abbreviates "outfield" as "out" (in baseball there are 3 outfield positions: left field, center field, and right field) while also implying that this person was almost certainly "left out" of any baseball game the other neighborhood kids might have played.

Grhm said...

Dick H:
Thank you very much for your response. Yes, 'so' can be used in Britain to indicate impatience ("So where is your homework, then?") but, as you say, that is different.
If this neutral usage, which is new to me, is not new to you, then it looks as if it's an American thing that has suddenly caught on over here. Which I find interesting. I assume others might too, given the theme of this blog.
I don't see any cause for mystification.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

We (Brits, I mean) do talk about "ski runs" - in fact, I think the term is more usually used than "piste", although "off-piste" is always used to describe that sort of skiing. Which my grandmother, incidentally, always pronounced "Sheeing", don't ask me why....

And, of course, it lends itself to all sorts of puns in newspaper headlines.

Incidentally, watchstrap also has six consonants in a row.

I understand "out of left field" to mean "out of the blue", in other words something totally unexpected that knocks you for six. Am I right?

Zhoen said...

I've only heard off-piste the first time a few months ago. Don't think I'll be using it, since it looks like it should be said pissed. If Pee-st, still puts me in mind of skiing on yellow snow.

Off track - lost. Off the beaten path - in the wilds or only the locals know. Off road, vehicle. Off base, beside the point. Off one's rocker... ok, I'll stop now.


David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

Which my grandmother, incidentally, always pronounced "Sheeing", don't ask me why....

I remember when it was quite widespread as a minority pronunciation. I suspect it reflected a time when skis and skiing were heard of and read about but seldom encountered.

When I was young, even if you had the money, you couldn't spend a lot on foreign holidays. Well you could if you were very rich and had overseas assets, but not if you had to spend money from your UK bank account. This foreign exchange restriction was enforced though the banks. Any foreign money that you bought was recorded in your passport. If it was a business trip, you could have the money recorded separately from your annual allowance for recreational travel.

In many cases, people who learned about the words from books also learned through dictionaries that ski was a Norwegian word pronounced SHEE in Norwegian.

The pronunciation was killed off (except, of course, among the elderly) when foreign travel became possible for pretty-well anyone. A critical mass of people experienced and spoke about skiing in countries where the pronunciation followed the spelling. Those of us who never went near a ski run learned it from hearing those who did.

David Crosbie said...

And then there's the new coining


Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

There has always been skiing in Scotland, though - certainly since about 1950, which covers those years you mention when foreign ski trips weren't available to British skiers.

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

Yes there were British skiers in the 50's and before, but they didn't yet amount to the significant proportion of speakers that they constituted shortly after.

When your grandmother first encountered the word ski, I bet she didn't hear it pronounced by French, German or Italian speakers — an experience that suddenly became very common in the sixties.

When I was a small boy I heard the SHEE pronunciation quite often — mostly, I suspect, from older speakers on the radio. I learned two pronunciation, then duly unlearned the old-fashioned one. People like your grandmother were disinclined to unlearn the pronunciation of their youth.

Anonymous said...

Seamus Heaney began Beowulf with So... in 1999, so it's not completely new in the British Isles.

Phil McCheddar said...

British stand-up comedians sometimes start each new joke with the word So even though the joke that follows has no connection with the previous joke. "So I was walking down the street when this bloke came up to me ..." It sounds like he is giving you an extract from a longer story - you have been thrust into the middle of an ongoing narrative and missed the opening few sentences.

Some BrE English translations of John 11:6 in the Bible start the sentence with the word So. For example, the NIVUK (anglicised NIV) first published in 1979.

Laura said...

Dick: yes, you're right, my phrasing was unclear! Something that is unexpected comes out of left field (to Mrs. Redboots: yes, your understanding of the phrase is correct!), whereas "in left field" would be used if describing the person rather than the idea itself.

Anonymous said...


I believe it was Martin Gardner (but don't quote me) who came up with something one better than bookkeeper: the person reporting to a bookkeeper, namely a subbookkeeper.

Boris Zakharin said...

Re cross-country skiing: What is the etymology of that term? When I first heard it, I imagined crossing an entire country on skis. If the term originates in the US, that would be pretty hard to do seeing as the country in question is kind of large and rarely if ever snow covered enough to actually cross it while on skis in any direction. So what does it mean then? Is it country as in countryside? If so, crossing the country in that sense is not idiomatic to me.

Paul Dormer said...

I would guess that cross-country skiing is derived the same way that the term cross-country running is, a torture my old games master liked to inflict on us when I was school. It means running across the countryside and not on a running track.

David Crosbie said...


Cross-country means quite simply 'which goes across country' as opposed to going through towns, along roads, over water, under ground, around a race track, over the rooftops or by any other route you can imagine.

The earliest quote in the OED is for 1767.

Country means much the same as 'countryside'. (It can mean something else in AmE, but that's another story.)

Boris Zakharin said...

I understand that country can mean countryside, and I mentioned that in my post. This to my mind means "not in a city or suburban area". In my idiolect, you can be, live, or otherwise be located "in the country", but you cannot cross it because it doesn't have a definite start and end, it's an abstract concept. Crossing something involves going from one end of it to another. I would expect the cross- prefix to work in the same way (along with many other irrelevant things like being in the shape of a cross, overlapping in a certain way, moving across a boundary, etc)

In addition, you have things like a cross-country flight, which reinforce my interpretation.

David Crosbie said...


In British English neither the country nor country need to have a definite start and end, nor are they necessarily abstract concepts.

The country usually means that which is outside urban areas, but it can always mean the type of country. Country alone can mean type of country, or it can mean specific terrain.

The OED does give the second, and much more recent, use in the phrase cross-country flight and the abbreviated a cross-country. The earliest quote is from 1909.

Personally, I don't remember hearing the phrase. There's not much call for it in Britain where a plane can cross the country in minutes. We have two types of flight: domestic and international. Most international flights cross several countries, so why bother to mention it?

This 'across a country' seems to be collocated only with flight. A cross-country bus journey or cross-country rail journey or cross-country drive means (at least to BrE speakers) a journey which avoids towns, not a journey that traverses the whole country. As Paul Dormer remarked, we Brits are also familiar with the dreaded cross-country run.

This concrete unlimited sense of country is frequently found in expressions such as open country, rough country, hilly country, flat country, mountainous country and country sports, country gent, country tweeds, country house, country dancing, country churchyard, country wedding.

The American use of country can be rather similar — except that it suggests something more remote and more radially different from town than the country we enjoy in Britain.

David Crosbie said...


The OED seems to cover most of the senses of country that I can think of. The senses are listed

1. The land of a person's birth, citizenship, residence, etc.; one's homeland.
a. with possessive my country etc
b. unqualified for King and country etc

2. Land, terrain, or a region of undefined extent, esp. considered with regard to its physical characteristics. Freq. with distinguishing words, as chalk country, fen country, stag-hunting country, country of the red deer, etc.
a. mass noun e.g. through lovely country
b. count noun: a particular tract or expanse of land; a region. e.g. a flat country like the Middle West

3. (chiefly with the) originally the land immediately around a castle, town etc, now the land at a distance from towns etc e.g. a place in the country

4a. (now rare) the land of a people e.g. the country of the Campbells
4b. region associated with someone (often an author) e.g. Shakespeare country

5. The territory of a nation; a region constituting an independent state, or a region, province, etc., which was once independent and is still distinct in institutions, language, etc. e.g. India is a hot country

6. the people of a country in sense 5 e.g. The country mourned

7. (now very rare) a jury

8. country music (the Nashville sort)

A cross-country flight uses country in sense [5]. Cross-country skiing uses country in sense [2a].

Grhm said...

What does the 'cross' in 'motocross' mean to you?

David Crosbie said...


This Wikipipedia disambiguation page for Cross country is interesting.

• Five of the linked articles are connected to country music with some sort of 'crossover'.

• Five relate to transport(ation). Although most are concerned with British rail transport, one article concerns American vehicles described as cross-country. (One is for a Ukrainian aircraft designed for the sport described below.)

• Six links relate to sports with cross country in the name, and three refer to sports which are described as 'cross country' in the articles.

The linked article on cross-country flying does not take it to mean what you assume — although your meaning is recognised in the OED. Rather it's the name of a sport involving gliders and navigational skills (as opposed to instruments) over routes which are cross-country in this (to me) frequent, everyday and unremarkable sense which you find so strange.

Yes, there's a subtitle term when land vehicles are involved; the vehicles in the Wikipedia article might nowadays be described as off-road. That won't work with skiing. Off-piste skiing is a particular sort of downhill skiing, making short runs from bottom to top. By contrast, cross-country skiing involves distance and a route. The qualification cross-country refers to the terrain — which constitutes an obstacle to be mastered, not a slope to be exploited together with the force of gravity.

David Crosbie said...


a subtitle term

Make that a suitable term.

David Crosbie said...


although your meaning is recognised in the OED

Actually, the OED isn't specific. The two quotes might well apply to the sport, not to flights which traverse a nation state:

The first cross-country flight of note was made by M. Farman on October 30, 1908.
He..had hit a hill, like any pupil on his first cross-country.

The second quote suggests to me the perils of flying without the usual instrumentation.

Dru said...

I've understood Nordic or cross-country skiing as meaning making a journey on skis. What makes it different from other skiing is that it isn't all downhill. To me sheeing is nearly as obsolete a pronunciation as the kinema.

Traditional usage is that a cross-country train journey is one that didn't involve going via London, e.g. Bristol to Newcastle via Birmingham.

'Off piste' and 'off the beaten track' have quite different meanings, both metaphorically and non-metaphorically. 'Off piste' is leaving the safe and familiar. It is slightly daring. 'Off the beaten track' means remote, difficult to get to and even possibly potentially lost.

It sounds, Lynne, from your use of the word 'maverick' that this is another example of a US expression that UK people have adopted but use in a way that is slightly different from what it originally meant. Here, I'd say it means quirky, but in a way that is equivocal. To describe someone as a 'maverick' isn't really a compliment. It strongly implies they 'aren't a team player'.

As a digression, another example of this is the US word 'rain-check'. A lot of English people think it means to do the metaphorical equivalent of looking out of the window to see if it is raining. Only a few days ago, I heard somebody say 'I need to do a rain check on that' meaning 'I need to check my diary when I get home to see whether I can make that time or not'.

David Crosbie said...

A bit late, but I've been thinking about the use of so that bothers Grhm and Dick Harzel. It's the sort of questions that makes teachers uneasy — obviously the natural thing to say but not at all obvious why.

The OED describes one use

As an introductory particle, without a preceding statement (but freq. implying one).

The quotes are from impressive authors:

Swift: So you have got into Presto's lodgings; very fine, truly!
Sheridan Well,—so, one of my a wild young rogue.
Byron: So Lord G* is married to a rustic! Well done!
Jowett's translation of Thucydides: And so we have met at last, but with what difficulty!

I think that's the use in Dick's

Lynne: so I'm wondering how off-piste is pronounced.

There's no 'preceding statement' uttered by Dick implied. But the the implied question follows from preceding statements made by Lynne.

As an introductory particle, so is a signal that the speaker is continuing a discussion or thread of argument. Even if the discussion is entirely in his or her head, nevertheless there' a communicative value. It's a signal that the rest of the sentence constitutes a considered thought. If — as in Dick's example — it follows from what the hearer said previously, then it's actually a gesture of respect. It signals

'Yes, I've been listening to what you say, and it leads me to think/ask as follows ...'

sablonneuse said...

With regard to "so" it is often used to get back 'on piste' if you have gone away from the topic.

Jeremy Drew said...

My memory is that the term 'Off-piste' gained much wider recognition and started to be applied to extended meanings following the Klosters avalanche and the Prince of Wales in 1988.

I know that there was a small group of malcontents where I was working, who styled themselves the 'Piste-offs'.

David Crosbie said...


Yes, that's when I first encountered the term.

I remember composing a post to the effect that I associated off piste with avalanche-related accidents. In my memory that was an accident that famously didn't happen. I'd forgotten that somebody else was killed.

David Crosbie said...

I remember composing a post ...

But it seems that I failed to post it.

Nick Rowe said...

[Though the UK isn't a great skiing destination, that doesn't keep Brits from skiing]

Also, the upper class Brits pretty much invented loads of winter sports. The nordic and alpine natives thought they were mental.

Grace said...

Mrs Redboots

To me as an American, "out of left field" has a slightly different connotation than "out of the blue." "Out of the blue" is something that's unexpected. "Out of left field" is not only unexpected, but also odd or confusing. Thus a comment may be out of the blue if you didn't expect the person to say anything, but it may be out of left field if you didn't expect them to say what they did. Not necessarily off-base, but certainly contrary to what you expected.

Incidentally, to back up Laura's comment, Wikipedia lists "out in left field" as a variant of "out of left field," though I don't think I've heard it personally.

John Duffy said...

"So" is often used to indicate to others that a story (or joke) is about to start. It is often followed by a slight pause, allowing potential listeners to give their attention to the speaker.

I had always assumed that "off-base" was referring to (for instance) a military base, so similar to "off the reservation", which I understand is no longer seen as polite, as it relates to native Americans in a not-entirely respectful way (I'd appreciate advice from US contributors here.)

It was amusing to read a previous comment that mixed "off-base" with "hit for six": some cultural issues here!

Grace said...

Yeah, as a native American (but not a Native American), I'd be hesitant to use the phrase 'off the reservation' anymore. Hillary Clinton actually used it recently in reference to Donald Trump, but then had to apologize for being racially insensitive. So it is still used occasionally and without intended prejudice, but safer not to.