Monday, February 4, 2013

Getting in Kilter

Since I dealt with the origins of the phrase out of whack, a few blogs ago, some troublesome customers have raised the question of why I failed to explain out of kilter at the same time.  Well, there are good reasons not to go there, but I guess I’ll have to, just to satisfy the curious. 

Kilter is defined by Webster as “proper or usual state of order” (origin unknown).   The O.E.D. says the word should be kelter, except that Americans call it kilter, and it means “good condition or order” (origin obscure).  Now if these two renowned sources don’t know where the word came from, how do you expect me to provide an answer?

Evidently the phrase out of kilter first appeared in print in the 1620s, but as the Word Detective website points out, “No one has ever come up with an even vaguely plausible explanation” of its origin. 

Kelter can mean several other things in various English dialects—“a coarse cloth,” “rubbish or nonsense,” “money or cash”—but none of these seem to point to something being in “good order.” Kilter is also defined in some usages as a “useless hand in cards.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, the Dutch word keelter means “stomach,” but to say something is “in or out of stomach” doesn’t make much sense either.  It’s also pointed out there is a Scottish dialect verb—kilt—meaning “to make things neat.”  The noun kilt is from the Scandinavian kjalta, meaning a fold in a skirt.  As a verb, kilt can also mean to “tuck up.”

None of this really gets us any closer to out of kilter, and my suggestion is just to stop using the phrase and maybe it will go away.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou will not go away, no matter how hard people may try to make him. The following will explain why they’d like him to go away, the sooner the better:

            My whack is out of kilter,            
            And my kilter’s out of whack,
            My wallet’s out of money,
            And my train is out of track.
            My friends are out of sorts,
            And my stove is out of coal,
            My serve is out of bounds,
            And I’m out of control.
            My computer’s out of order,
            And my car is out of gas,
            My expense is out of pocket,
            Gosh, I hope that this will pass.

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