Southam began injecting prisoners in June 1956 using HeLa cells that his colleague, Alice Moore, carried from New York to Ohio in a handbag. Sixty-five prisoners—murderers, embezzlers, robbers, and forgers—lined up on wooden benches for their injections. Some wore white hospital garb; others came off work gangs wearing blue dungarees.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

What is the meaning of 'come off' here? Is 'work' an adjective?

  • off is a synonym for from. When a new car comes off the assembly line, it is driven to a holding yard. When a new car comes from the assembly line, it is driven to a holding yard. off emphasizes the detachment.
    – TimR
    Feb 21, 2016 at 0:13

2 Answers 2


What is the meaning of 'come off' here?

"came off" here can be read basically as "came directly from". They've come directly from a working duty that made them all dress a certain way. So that's why they are dressed like that.

"off" has a sense of "getting away or released from". For instance, there is the expression "getting off work". You might ask "when do you get off work?" meaning "what time are you released from the duty of being at your job?"

Is 'work' an adjective?

It's used to describe the kind of gang in this case. It is talking about prisoners who have been taken somewhere and made to do labor. For instance digging ditches or cleaning up trash by the highway, perhaps cuffed together and supervised by armed guards. It's a historical thing (mostly):


The usual expressions would be "work crew" and "chain gang", but this has mixed it as "work gang". Which may or may not have been common wording at the time.

  • "Work gang" to me doesn't necessarily imply "chain gang".
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 20, 2016 at 23:27

A "work gang" is a group of people assigned to work together, usually in some sort of penal or strongly regulated context.

  • so they came as work gangs? what is 'off' doing in this sentence?
    – whitecap
    Feb 20, 2016 at 22:28
  • Answered by Hostile fork
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 20, 2016 at 23:25

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