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.