Out of whack

One paper jam over the line.

Dear Word Detective: “Out of whack” doesn’t make any sense to me (but it might just be me). I asked a friend, and she suggested that it might come from old cars (mostly Russian) that started up if you gave them a good whack. This explanation makes sense; after all, my (broken) pencil sharpener needs to be whacked before it will start … but I think it might be too perfect. Can you give me some information? — Aife.


A minor adjustment often helps.

Wow. You own a pencil sharpener? I’m not certain that I still even own a pencil. I do have some pens that followed me home from the office about fifteen years ago, but I use them mostly just to write checks. (They’re a special type that writes on rubber.) What never fails to amaze people, however, is the fact that I don’t own a computer printer. If I need to save something from the web, I usually copy it by hand or just draw a picture of it.

All of which brings us back to “out of whack.” Almost every gizmo found in modern life goes kablooey at some point. The toaster decides you like your bagels “cajun style.” The dishwasher suddenly starts bending all your forks. Sometimes the cure for an “out of whack” appliance is as simple as placing it on the curb the day before trash pickup. This method is especially effective on toasters, which are easily intimidated. Other machines, however, are utterly incorrigible. My last printer, for instance, refused to print even after being tossed out a second-floor window.

“Whack” as a verb first appeared in the early 18th century meaning “to beat or strike sharply and vigorously,” and was probably formed in imitation of the sound such a blow would make. As a noun, “whack” started out meaning just such a blow, but soon developed a range of secondary meanings. One of the odder uses was “whack” meaning “a portion, one’s share,” originally slang in the criminal underworld meaning “a share of the proceeds of a crime.” Just how this sense developed is uncertain, but it may have been coined as a play on the “splitting” of the loot. This “fair share” sense then went on to mean “an agreement” (“‘I’ll stay if you will.’ ‘Good — that’s a whack’,” Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer), and, in the 19th century, “in fine whack” and similar phrases appeared meaning “in good order” or, of a person, “in good shape.”

By 1885, the opposite sense had predictably appeared, and a person (or body part) in bad shape was described as “out of whack” (“His liver is out of whack and no mistake,” 1918). Almost immediately the phrase was also applied to mechanical devices (“Being able to get at any part of the mechanism which may be ‘out of whack’ is important,” 1906), which is the most common sense in use today.

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