This word tasting has been in the offing for a while – if by offing I may mean my notepad on my phone. It’s not that it’s been perceptible to anyone else. But, hey, it’s my offing. Lay off. -ing.
Most of us know this word only in the phrase in the offing, and meaning something that’s a-comin’ like a slow train across the prairies. Occasionally you may even see it reconstrued as in the offering, because, really, what the heck is an offing? We know what an inning is, and we know what an outing is (by the caprices of English the two are not antonyms), and we know what a siding is and a topping (probably not a bottoming, though), and we can talk about upping the price and downing a drink, but there’s no such thing as an onning and it’s not clear to most of us why the offing is the offing.
Well, what it is, is if you’re on shore and looking out to sea, out there, off shore, off past all the coastal hazards, off in the stretch of sea before you get to the horizon, if you see a ship there, it’s in the offing. Because the offing is that stretch of the sea that’s far off, but not so far off that you can’t see it. And it’s called the offing because, well, it’s off in the distance.
Really, that’s it. The word’s been with us at least since Shakespeare was alive and writing (though the Bard himself never used it in his plays), and the figurative use has been around at least since the late 1700s. Now, a ship that is in the offing is not necessarily heading towards you; it could be just crossing from one side to the other, parallel to the shore at a distance, or it could even be going away from you. But when people were keeping watch on the offing, it wasn’t principally to make sure that a ship was good and gone; it was to see if there was one coming, looming in the offing, to use a turn of phrase that Theodore Dreiser and Walter Scott were both comfortable with.
The offing is not a strictly established distance or span of distance. The inshore hazards and anchorages extend a varying and imprecise distance, beyond which the offing starts, and the distance of the horizon – the farther limit of the offing – will depend on your elevation. Just for example, when I stand on the shore of Lake Ontario, on Toronto Island, the far shore is beyond the horizon, but when I look from the south window of my apartment on the 27th floor, I can see the far shore, nearly 50 km away.
This can certainly inform the metaphor too: not just that if you take a more elevated perspective you will be able to see more in the offing, but also that sometimes the offing ends before the horizon – there is a far shore, and who knows but the ship you see in the offing may be heading for it. And you’re on the far side of the offing for people on the far shore. Perhaps that puts you in the onning.