out of kilter

“Out of kilter” means out of order; in poor health or spirits.

“Kilter” arose from an older English dialect word “kelter,” which means “good health, good condition.” The earliest examples in print, mostly from the US, where the phrase is still more commonplace than elsewhere, are “out of kelter.”

It was once widely known in that form in various English and Scots dialects from the 1500s onwards. The English Dialect Dictionary has a wonderful quote from a Scottish source about this last one: “Eels are said to kelter in the water when they wamble.” (To wamble is to turn and twist the body about, roll or wriggle about, or roll over and over.)

“Wamble” sounds as if it belongs in Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll’s poem in Through The Looking Glass.

In 1643, the English Protestant theologian Roger Williams traveled to America and made a study of Native American languages, especially Narragansett, an Algonquian language. He subsequently published A Key Into the Language of America, which was a glossary of the language he had heard, which included this comment: “Their Gunnes they [native Americans] often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter.”

Williams lay claim to being the first writer to document the changes to English that occurred in America – what was later the source of the George Bernard Shaw quotation that Britain and the USA were “two nations divided by a common language.”

Off Kilter is a Celtic rock band. I hope that doesn’t mean they play out of tune.

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