Off like a herd of turtles

Came up in a Facebook discussion involving Ann Burlingham and Aric Olnes, the catchphrase in this bit of digital art by Methune Hively:


off like a herd of turtles, referring to a very slow start or to slow progress after an auspicious start – based on the horse-racing announcer’s They’re OFF!, plus the legendary slowness of turtles, with the rhyming play thrown in.

The history of the catchphrase isn’t entirely clear; it seems to be US only, but spread over the whole country, and has been reported from recollections (though these are often unreliable) taking it back to the 1940s. Google Ngram pulls up a 1944 cite from an aeronautics magazine (though its metadata are unreliable), suggesting that the wordplay was originally a WWII military thing.

In any case, we’re off like a herd of turtles spawned a number of playful variants: … a hoid of toitles (in mock-Brooklynese), … a thundering herd of turtles (an expanded variant with more phonological embroidery), … a turd of hurdles (a Spoonerized variant, with the mildly taboo turd), slower than a herd of turtles, and a wildly elaborated version of this, slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter.

Finally, there’s a country song “Herd of Turtles” (“she took off like a herd of turtles”) recorded by Grandpa Jones, which you can watch here in a performance from the US tv show Hee Haw (1969-1997; I’ve found no dating for this clip).

On Jones, from Wikipedia:

Louis Marshall Jones (October 20, 1913 – February 19, 1998), known professionally as Grandpa Jones, was an American banjo player and “old time” country and gospel music singer.

One Response to “Off like a herd of turtles”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Avery Andrews on Facebook:

    Off like a dirty shirt (Southeastern Iowa)
    Off like a bucket of prawns in the sun (Australia)

    Playing with off: the off of take off ‘remove’; and off ‘no longer fresh; spoiled’.

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