Q: I was lying in bed last night when I started thinking about the phrase “out of kilter.” I deconstructed it mentally, wondering whether something could be in kilter as well as out of it. Do you have any insights about this one?
A: It’s nice to know that other people toss around in bed trying to decipher English phrases!
The short answer is that things can be “in kilter” or “out of kilter,” though they’re usually out of it. Here’s the longer version.
The noun has been spelled both “kilter” and “kelter” since it showed up in the early 1600s, but “kilter” is now the spelling in standard dictionaries in the US and the UK.
The Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary whose entry for the word hasn’t been fully updated, still uses “kelter” as its principal spelling.
The OED defines the term as “good condition, order; state of health or spirits,” and says it’s used “in the phrases out of kelter, in (good, high) kelter, to get into kelter.”
Only 2 of the 15 Oxford citations use the term positively (the last positive example is from the early 1820s). And only one of the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked has a positive example.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes an example that refers to efforts to bring the “country’s economy back into kilter with the Western economic system.”
Etymologists have been stumped about the origins of “kilter.” The OED says says the etymology is obscure, but adds that the usage is “widely diffused in English dialect from Northumbria and Cumberland to Cornwall.”
The first written use of the word, according to Oxford, is in a 1628 letter cited in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation:
“Hithertoo ye Indeans of these parts had no peeces nor other arms but their bowes & arrowes, nor of many years after; neither durst they scarce handle a gune, so much were they affraid of them; and ye very sight of one (though out of kilter) was a terrour unto them.” (We’ve gone to the original and expanded the OED citation for context.)
It’s interesting that Bradford uses “out of kilter” in reference to firearms, because some other early mentions also concern them. Here are a couple of examples, including a positive one:
“Their Gunnes they … often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter” (from Roger Williams’s Key Into the Language of America, 1643).
“Mending, cleansing and keeping in good kelter the firelocks left with his Honour” (from Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 1722).
Any association with firearms may simply be coincidental, though, since “kilter” and “out of kilter” were used early on in reference to other things as well.
An early definition reads this way: “Kelter or Kilter, Frame, order.” It comes from John Ray’s A Collection of English Words, Not Generally Used (1674). We should note here that “in frame” was an old expression for “in order” or “in good form.”
This sampling from Oxford’s citations, which includes the last positive one, shows how widely these expressions have been used:
“If the organs of Prayer are out of kelter, or out of tune, how can we pray?” (from a sermon by the English theologian Isaac Barrow, delivered sometime before 1677).
“The seats some burned and others out of kilter” (from a 1681 quotation given in an 1898 article in New England Magazine).
“I found all of my family well excepting the poor pale Johnnie; and he is really a thing to break one’s heart by looking at—yet he is better. The rest are in high kelter” (we’ve expanded this citation from a May 20, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott).
“I must rest awhile. My brain is out of kilter” (from a letter written in 1862 by James Russell Lowell).
“Jack’s death sort of knocked you out of kilter” (from The Four of Hearts, an Ellery Queen mystery, 1938).
“There [in Northern Ireland], an allotment of 12 seats at Westminster is based upon electoral quotas wildly out of kilter with the quotas for England, Scotland, and Wales” (from the Times, London, 1973).
We’ll end with a modern example of “kilter” used positively. In Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (2008), George Vecsey describes the reaction of baseball junkies to the Yankees’ victory over the Braves in the 1996 World Series:
“Yankee fans were relieved to find the moon and stars finally back in kilter, but Yankee-haters, in their own tortured way, felt relieved to finally be oppressed again in familiar fashion.”