How “Online” Became “Offline”

I read this sentence in The New York Times not long ago: “Most evenings, before watching late-night comedy or reading emails on his phone, Matt Nicoletti puts on a pair of orange-colored glasses that he bought for $8 off the Internet.”

The phrase that caught my inner ear was “off the Internet.” It sounded odd because, given the widespread use of the expressions online and on the Internet, one would expect the preposition to be on. 

A possible explanation for the “bought it off the Internet” formulation stems from the use of off (since the 1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary), in the sense of from, “esp. with take, buy, borrow, hire, and the like.” It’s a colloquial but very real idiom, as in “I bought it off my brother.” (Even more colloquial is “I bought it off of my brother.”)

But I don’t buy this etymology for “bought it off the Internet.” For one thing, the off-instead-of-from pattern doesn’t really apply: it sounds weird to say, “I bought it from the Internet.” Looking into the history of the phrase further convinced me that the explanation lies elsewhere. Here are some examples from the early years:

  • “The G Box has the responsibility of taking packets off the Internet and handing them over to the LAN or vice versa.”—Computerworld magazine, 1992
  • “‘Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant,’ says Kapor.”—The Nation, 1993
  • ” … sexual images can be downloaded off the Internet.” —CIO magazine, 1993
  • ” … pulling shareware off the Internet.” —InfoWorld magazine, 1994
  • “And we’re looking for ways to try to at least help parents deal with what their children can get off the Internet.”—Pres. Bill Clinton, 1994
  • “People said they would buy more off the Internet if they knew the privacy policies for the companies whose sites they visit.”—Network World magazine, June 1997

The progression is interesting. The early references are to files, software, text, or images, and the word off suggests a sense of the Internet as a giant clothesline, or tree, on which these things are hanging, ready to be plucked. I believe that notion extended to the Matt Nicoletti idea of purchasing things from Internet vendors, as first seen in the 1997 Network World quote.

Before long, people started talking about buying something off a particular vendor. From Nick Hornby’s 2007 novel Slam: “Mum buys stuff off Amazon sometimes.”

I mentioned all this to my daughter Maria Yagoda, and she said people her age (twenties) and younger have taken things a step farther, saying, “I bought it offline” to indicate something purchased in an Internet transaction. Sure enough, a poster to Urban Dictionary created an entry for this in 2005:

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And it’s still very much around a decade later. I did a Google search for the phrase “bought it offline,” limited to things posted in the last year. Of the hits that were not ambiguous, about half referred to purchases that were made in stores (the traditional “offline”) and about half to ones that were made online. Examples of the latter:

  • “Rodriguez purchased a bus pass on the Facebook group recently and said her pass ‘worked perfectly’ and she bought it offline because of the cheaper cost.—The State News (Michigan State University student paper)
  • “i agree about the naked palette i bought it offline because i couldn’t find it in Australia”—YouTube video “Makeup Products OVERHYPED”
  • “Where Do I Find My Product Code If I Bought It Offline And Dont Have The Confirmation Email Anymore?”— message board

How did this usage arise? In 2009, someone posed that question to the Yahoo Answers community: “How come when a lot of people buy something online they tell others they bought it ‘offline’?” Sacha’s response was chosen “best answer,” and I think it’s basically right, including the implicit observation that the old-fashioned and somewhat Al Gore-y term Internet has been supplanted by the all-purpose online. Sacha opined: “its a quick way of saying it. for example instead of saying i bought it off the internet, they say i bought it offline – coz it wouldnt it make sense if they sed i bought it off online. if you get what im saying? lol.”

Lol indeed. The etymology is all well and good, but the phrase remains peculiar at best, nonsensical and confusing at worst. As Neil Roberts points out, offline is in all other contexts understood to mean not connected to the Internet, so where is the possible logic in saying “I bought it offline” when what is clearly meant is “I bought it online”?

But demanding logic from language developments is a mug’s game. So I’m going to withdraw the question and go offline.