Rails and Walls

In a story about newly registered young voters in the New York Times (8/26/18) a young man is quoted as saying “The country has just gone off the walls since Trump got elected.”

This didn’t sound quite right to me. The usual expression is “off the wall”—singular—not “walls.”

In addition “off the wall” is normally used as adjectival phrase modifying some noun: “He made some off-the-wall remarks.”

(Unless, of course, you’re discussing handball.)

It refers to erratic, eccentric, unexpected actions. Occurring first in the 1950’s, it may have referred to the erratic, unpredictable behavior of balls bouncing off walls, such as baseball outfield fences.

Then I realized that the young man perhaps had this phrase confused with the much older one, “off the rails.” It originated a century earlier when everyone was aware that a railroad engine running off the rails could cause a true disaster.  It is used to describe things going not just unpredictably, but catastrophically.

Its close relation is “trainwreck.” So a political campaign that goes off the rails will probably end in a trainwreck.

Young people born in the 21st century probably don’t have railroads much in mind. Having heard the expression “off the rails” and confusing it with “off the wall,” the young man probably carried the plural S over onto the "wall” and came up with the expression “gone off the walls.”

But there's also the expression “bouncing off the walls,” usually describing childish hyperactivity. That could also be the source of the plural form.

Whatever he meant, congratulations to him for getting registered. We need a lot more young people to follow his example.

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