There are a lot of common idioms that get used by English speakers today. One that you may have heard is “he’s off his rocker.” Once you’ve heard it you may find yourself wondering what the person you’re speaking to actually means.
When someone says “he’s off his rocker” they’re telling you that this person is behaving in a way that’s either very silly or very strange. In other words, they’re acting crazy or insane. We will use this in speaking or writing whenever we refer to someone showing odd behavior.
Meaning of the Phrase
When you say that “he’s off his rocker” you are saying that the person is acting in a way that’s either very strange or very silly. You may also be saying that the person is of an unsound mind. Of course, there are a few other ways that you can express this including:
- As mad as a hatter
- Cracked up
- Have bats in the belfry
- Lost his mind
- Off his trolley
- Whack job
- Off one’s noodle
- Off one’s nut
Nuances of the Phrase
There are a lot of different nuances behind the saying “he’s off his rocker.” One such nuance has to do with people advancing towards old age. Traditionally this was looked at as a time when people would spend an increasing amount of time resting and rocking in their rocking chair. Many families would even acquire a rocking chair for their parents as they were aging. In this regard, the rocker is typically seen as a place to rest – a dignified refuge.
As for the seeming contradiction between rocking and no longer rocking, this has to do with the belief that someone will start to rock even faster when they are declining into senile psychosis. You see this same behavior in a disturbed child as they will insist on rocking on their rocking horse. This rocking will continue to the point that all physical and mental equilibrium becomes lost both literally and figuratively. At this point, it is said that “he’s off his rocker” meaning that he’s no longer on a straight path or on a path that is associated with a rational destination.
When this phrase is used in this way being active on the rocker is seen as a sense of reality while being off the rocker is seen as being unrealistic. Here this phrase also alludes to the idea behind the “second childhood” (age regression). This is oftentimes seen as being a part of the decline into old age and mental deterioration or even Alzheimer’s disorder, a short-lived form of regression. There are also some people who seem to retain normal capacity throughout their lifetime only to start slipping and using baby-like references when they are nearing death.
This doesn’t mean that this saying only applies to older people. In fact, as the saying, “he’s off his rocker” became more commonly used in the English language it started to encompass a more complete spectrum of mental disturbance or suffering. Thus it now includes people of all ages who have either a real or perceived impairment that doesn’t fall anywhere near psychosis. At other times this phrase may be used to reference a loss of time or the passing of time in a more sensible way – something that can be exemplified by rocking’s rhythm.
Origin of the Phrase
The origin of this phrase is actually quite interesting. It was around 1896 when we first hear someone say “he’s off his rocker.” There are two different schools of thought regarding what was originally meant here and when it was originally referenced.
When someone would say that a person is a bit “off” they are using a common beginning for an expression that signals someone has mental issues. For instance, someone may tell you that “Something about her seems off.”
Nobody is quite sure why a rocker appears in this expression though. However, some people have speculated that it has to do with a rocking chair. Remember, traditionally elderly people were commonly depicted as passing time sitting in a rocking chair. This actually makes sense when you stop to consider the fact that older people are also much more susceptible to dementia. Therefore when you say “he’s off his rocker” you may be saying that an old person has fallen out of their rocking chair because they were behaving in a peculiar fashion.
Many people say that this phrase originally was used in referring to mood swings. However, over the years it has come to mean that a person is simply crazy. This is different from a normal person who would periodically go crazy unexpectedly.
When you pause to consider what type of person you would expect to see on a rocker, you probably think of an elderly person who was commonly found in everyone’s home prior to the wide acceptance of nursing homes in 1897. Most of the time these elderly persons would simply sit around with their hands folded, quietly rocking and mumbling to themselves. Occasionally these people would suddenly grow agitated and they would jump up and dance around the house excitedly.
Other people have said that the phrase “he’s off his rocker” more than likely has to do with electrical trams. This is because there were some trolleys that had to remain in contact with an overhead line in order to be able to receive power. When this didn’t happen it was said that the trolley was off its rocker meaning that it lost contact with the wire so it no longer had power. This would also make sense in the way that a person’s brain was no longer receiving a good signal.
It’s challenging to know who is right considering that both phrases happened to appear in the English language at around the same time. Regardless of who is right, it’s clear that “he’s off his rocker” and “he’s off his trolley” likely came from the same source and have the same meaning. They’ve both also led to another popular saying, “off dead center.” This saying was used when an engine would stop with its beam perfectly in the horizontal position but then when it’d get started again the rocking motion would become frozen because the steam cylinder’s force was straight up.
When using one of these engines it was important to keep a long lever bar close by so that the crew could lift the end of the beam just enough to start the normal rocking motion and get the engine off dead center. If pressure was wrongly applied at this time the beam may have possibly jumped off its rocker. Obviously, this isn’t what anyone wanted to have happened and you can easily imagine the dire consequences when it did.
How the Phrase is Used
The phrase, “he’s off his rocker,” is an idiom. This means that it’s an expression or a combination of words that takes on a figurative meaning. This is different from what the individual words mean by themselves, taken literally. For instance, if someone were to say “he’s off his rocker” that doesn’t mean that he is literally no longer seated in his rocker. Instead, we would understand that it means that he’s crazy. However, if we were to take the saying literally we would associate the word rocker with nothing other than a rocking chair. In this case, though, it’s a well-known idiom.
You will find that idioms are quite commonly used throughout the English language. This is especially true when you’re having a casual conversation. However, there will be some times when idioms are also used in formal speech and writing too. They are a great way to add some color and even a little mystery to the otherwise dull English language.
Taking the time to learn what some of the most commonly used idioms are is well worth the effort. You should also take some time to learn what some of the more confusing ones mean as well. Doing so will help you better understand what a conversation means when an idiom is being used in it. This will also help you to recognize what feelings and values a person is trying to express.
Examples of the Phrase in Sentences
Now that you have a better understanding of where the phrase “he’s off his rocker” originated from and what it means, you may want to try using it in some of your conversations. Here are a few example sentences to help you get started doing so:
- He has grown his hair long, stopped working, and moved into a commune. If you ask me, he’s gone completely off of his rocker.
- It is highly unlikely that we’re going to finish this project in time. He’s off his rocker.
- If you think that I’m going on that ride, you’re off your rocker.
- If he thinks the most popular girl in school will date him, he’s off his rocker.
- If you think you’re going to win the lottery, you’re off your rocker.
Regardless of where the phrase “he’s off his rocker” originated from, it’s grown in popularity today. Therefore it’s important to understand that it means the person being referenced is crazy.