Kilter

Tilt.

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.

5 comments on this post.
  1. Joyce Melton:

    Could kilter be related to a German or Dutch word “keeler” or maybe “kieler” meaning something like “square”? There’s a saying in my family about one of my great-grandfathers that he was a “keeler-headed Dutchman” meaning a stubborn German. Elsewhere, I’ve heard “square-headed Dutchman” or “square-headed German” used the same way, or even just “square-head” to mean someone obstinate.

    In German, “Kieler” means someone or something from the port city of Kiel. Could it have acquired a meaning of “shipshape” or “squared away?” Or are Kielers (Kieleren?) in Germany reputed to be obstinate?

    Just a thought.

  2. Brooke:

    I found this site by looking to see if my use of the word was appropriate. I’ve always liked saying even kiltered which seems a bit redundant now. But I like it. I guess with all the outs and offs it seems necessary.Thank you!

  3. Boopsie Bopper:

    I was thinking of ‘kilter’ (and also of ‘helter-skelter’)
    and remembered an intro biology instructor at Rice U. Mr. Davies who once illustrated a point by saying something about being ‘couth, kempt, and sheveled.’ That sent my mind wandering for the rest of the lecture, and indeed has stuck with me for fifty years! (He was pointing out that we currently only use the words in the negative ‘uncouth, unkempt, and disheveled’.)
    –Carol

  4. Heller High Water Mark | Alden Kahn:

    [...] stories. Most of the book’s chapters begin as individual character studies of the various off-kilter players that transform into small vignettes that don’t come into full focus until later. [...]

  5. David:

    My dad loved playing with our minds with his use of languages (usually English) by using archaic words. One of his favorites was “frowsy.” In my English Lit class in high school, we had to make up a short, light-hearted poem (I forget, at the moment, what those are called), and I got an “A” by rhyming “lousy” with the next line, “…short, forlorn, and frowsy.” -David

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