Dear Word Detective: The other day I happened to use a word which popped into my mind and I said, “It’s all out of kilter.” I had heard that expression used all my life and I think I understand what it means, “out of order,” in the sense I used it. But where did this word come from? The more I think about it, the more it seems strange to me. Can you clarify it for me? — John Sellars.
“Kilter” is a strange little word. By itself it means “good form, order, spirits or condition,” so, strictly speaking, it doesn’t need a qualifying adjective such as “good,” “bad,” “fine,” “satisfactory,” etc. If the marina manager says that a rental boat is “in kilter,” one does not expect to have to swim home. On the other hand, I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw “kilter” used in a positive, everything’s fine sense, even in an elaborated form such as “in good kilter.” In fact, the more than 800 uses of “kilter” found in a search of Google News at the moment seem equally divided between “out of kilter” and “off kilter.” I gave up looking for something “in kilter” or “in fine kilter” after the third page of results.
You might conclude, from that survey, that it’s just the world today that’s on the blink, but the whole history of “kilter” paints a portrait of a universe that doesn’t look or work quite right. “Kilter” first appeared in print in the early 17th century, but the term seems to have been used in English and Scottish dialects, in the form “kelter,” since the early 16th century. And the very first citation for “kelter” in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1643, speaks of selling armaments that are out of “kelter” to unsuspecting customers (“Their Gunnes they … often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter.”).
Unfortunately, no one has ever come up with an even vaguely plausible explanation for the origin of “kelter” or “kilter.” There are, as it happens, other “kelters” in English dialects. One means “rubbish or nonsense,” another is used to mean “money or cash,” and a third is a term for a very rough sort of cloth used at one time in coats in Northern England. But there appears to be no connection between any of those “kelters” and our “kilter.”
There’s also no connection, in case you were wondering, between “kilter” and “kilt,” the pleated tartan skirt worn as part of traditional Scottish dress. “Kilt” comes from Scandinavian roots carrying the general notion of “to tuck up” or “to gird up one’s skirts around the waist,” as if in preparation for battle.