If you’re “out of sorts,” you’re a bit unwell, in low spirits, irritable, not your usual self. A similar phrase is “out of kilter.”
Since the 1600s “sorts” has been used by typographers to name the metal characters in their boxes of type, so called because they have been arranged, or sorted, each into its own compartment, with all of one kind together. The first known use of the word “sorts” in this context dates from 1668.
If a typesetter found a set of sorts empty he might well have felt grumpy about it. But is that the source of the “out of sorts” phrase?
We shouldn’t jump to conclusions since the first known appearance of “out of sorts” is in The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood, 1562. That comes more than a century before any mention of “sorts” in typesetting. But perhaps earlier appearances referring to typesetting will eventually be found; after all, Gutenberg invented movable type printing in around 1440.
The Latin original of “sort” named the piece of wood used for drawing lots. Later, the same Latin word developed into the idea of one’s fate, fortune, or condition. It survived until shortly after Shakespeare’s time, when the first reference to “out of sorts” is found.
But “sort” evolved another meaning in English that related to rank, order, or class. It was used to describe the qualities or standing of people. Those that we still use today are “your own sort,” “the right sort,” and “of all sorts.” So perhaps “out of sorts” also means a lack of quality.
Another idea is that a pack of cards that hasn’t been shuffled is said to be “out of sort” and not suitable for playing with. But the dictionary doesn’t mention that.
And I have been playing cards, from cribbage to contract bridge, since I was six years old, and I’ve never heard “sort” used in that way. It seems to me that a brand new deck of cards, which comes sorted into suits and in ascending or descending order of value, should be called “in sort.” And, when dealt a hand, I “sort” my cards into appropriate order.
I think I’ve sorted that one out.