The Flip-flopping Definition of “Off-Putting”

What does “off-putting” mean?

When we talk about something “off-putting,” we describe something disturbing, disagreeable, or repellant. This is a relatively new definition of the phrase, dating to the 1930s.

In the decades prior to that, “off-putting” as an adjective used to mean procrastinating or delaying. Primarily used in Scotland, it is similar to how we would use “putting off” doing something.

For example, if you put off refrigerating the milk, it will soon have an off-putting odor.

The Great Flipflop

Before the use of off-putting as an adjective for “repellant,” “put off” was used (in the Middle Ages!) as a verb used to mean “to disconcert.”

The back-formation of “off-putting” as the verb “offput” (to disconcert) has only been used since the 1960s.

Off-putting and the Four Humors

Given its 600-year-old history, I started wondering if early medical professionals believed that the body’s “humors” are being put off to become disagreeable.

In the language of the body’s four humors, a person who is disagreeable would appear to have excess yellow bile. In Classical, medieval, and Neo-Classical philosophy, these choleric individuals (too much yellow bile) were thought to be aggressive and vengeful.

Shakespeare’s character, Falstaff, is famously considered to be generally disagreeable. His humor imbalance led to his being considered “phlegmatic.” Shakespeare describes him as a vain, cowardly drunkard of questionable ethics and worse habits.

Eduard von Grützner - Falstaff (1906)

In the other meaning of off-putting, though, it is harder to determine who would be likeliest to procrastinate.

Ways to Procrastinate

There are several types of procrastination:

  1. You are over-committed and anxious about getting everything finished
  2. You would rather be doing something else more fun
  3. You need a deadline to get something done
  4. You are a perfectionist who so fears producing a substandard product that you can’t start anything

In this case the faulty humor is a little harder to identify.

“Melancholic” individuals would be likeliest to be anxious or perfectionistic, while that “sanguine” person would tend to be the social, engaging person looking for an excuse to do something else. Similarly, a “phlegmatic” person would tend to be easy-going to the degree that they would struggle to complete something without a deadline.

Ultimately, since all the humors can be tied to the different meanings of ”off-putting,” I was disappointed not to be able to provide a clear link.

Learning new words and being able to find the word that means exactly what the story needs can mean the difference between a mediocre story and a brilliant one.

For Word Wednesdays, we will identify an unusual word, provide its definition, and discuss its application or its impact.

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