“The Online Etymology Dictionary.”
That’s the name of a website I discovered recently. No, it’s not a site devoted to knowledge about bugs. That’s “entomology.” Etymology is indeed a “-logy” so it’s “the science of” something. But not creepy-crawlies. Etymology is the science of word derivations. The site’s owners describe it as “a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.” Nicely put.
I’m glad somebody created such a site. I’m imagining them as a group of under-appreciated, underpaid, societally under-valued, mildly depressive but devoted English majors who are also afflicted with the kind of itch history helps scratch.
Even for a society on technological steroids, it’s probably good to keep around a few of the old fossils just described. Math and science folks help us know how to go really fast and do cool stuff. Humanities folks help answer pesky questions about which direction we’re going and what cool stuff is worth doing (and where there’ve been wrecks we maybe should avoid).
I feel better just knowing that the Online Etymology Dictionary is available and doing good work for humanity. It’d be a shame for some fine old English words and phrases to be lost or orphaned and nobody know from whence they came. Sometimes a phrase comes along and just begs you to try to meet its parents by following the wheel ruts back up the road a bit. I was grabbed by just such a phrase recently, and that’s when I discovered this site.
If something is “out of working order or alignment,” “out of order,” “not in good condition,” we might say, “It’s out of whack.” But we’re just as likely to say, “It’s out of kilter.” We know what that means. But why does it mean what it means? What, pray tell, is the “kilter” something might be “out of”?
My money was on “kilter” being an old nautical term. I like old nautical terms. But no. Or maybe a surveyor’s or navigator’s term. Nope.
I learned that the phrase first shows up in the 1620’s. “Kilter” is a variant of the English “kelter” which pops up around 1600 and means “good condition, order.”
But why does it mean that? The word was sired somewhere! You never met a word without some verbal ancestors. Alas, this one is short on birth records. That’s too bad, because it’s a cool word and part of a great phrase. It’s a shame Al Gore wasn’t around to invent the Internet a few hundred years earlier. Maybe if the Online Etymology Dictionary had been around a good bit longer, a good phrase wouldn’t be so sadly orphaned and, just maybe, the world would be a little less “out of kilter.”
I hope you’re not feeling “out of kilter.” Yes, we live in an “out of kilter” world. But we can thank our Father for the gift he gave to be sure that one day, pure joy and complete goodness and order will reign, and nothing and nobody will ever again be out of . . .
Well, you know.
Copyright 2012 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.