Sunday, December 12, 2010


Just woke up thinking of this word for some reason. I think I was thinking of using the phrase "arms akimbo" in a sentence. Then I realized that I didn't really know if I had it right or not. At the present time, I think it means with arms or legs crossed and folded. But I think when I used to read it, I thought it meant "strewn about all over the place". Maybe it means neither.

Where does it come from? It sounds like it could be African, but maybe that's because it has a sound association to the unfortunate Little Black Sambo. Or maybe it's one of those words from India that migrated with returning soldiers. Well, with my luck at guessing such things, it is probably Old English. Let's see...

Darn. How can I be so right about being so wrong? It is in fact, Middle English--kenebowe kene- (origin unknown--hate when that happens!) +bowe which is "bow" or "bend". Like elbow. And in fact elbows have a lot to do with it, because akimbo is really about the elbows pointing out to the side with hands on hips. Yeah, yeah--I got that wrong too.

However, there is a bright side. Turns out that the ever provocative Anatole Liberman has written an article about the problematic etymology of the word for the OUP. Hooray! I advise you to stop reading this highly speculative blog and read his article here.

If you must choose to read on, I will pose a quiet note of contradiction, though. Liberman says:

"A third putative source of akimbo is Gaelic cam “bent, crooked”; the English adverb kim-kam “all awry, all askew” has been attested...The suggestion that just one component of akimbo is Celtic has little to recommend it."

Well, maybe. I find it interesting, though, that I had some underlying sense of the 'all awry, all askew' meaning, even if it did not pan out. Does that come from my Irish roots? Or, more probably, has this shadowy secondary meaning haunted the word all along?

Mr. Liberman, I hope that some day, these questions will be answered.



  1. Interesting. I like the second comment at the botom Mr. Liberman's article, regarding Tom Wolfe. I say this because as soon as the word akimbo is mentioned, I think of his novel "A Man in Full", where the word is used in fictional song lyrics in the novel. Howard Stern also comes to mind, as he has used the word a few times.

    In both cases, it meant legs spread, which is what I though it meant, until now.

  2. I love words, so I love this blog! I have also looked up "akimbo" in order to use it correctly, and had associated crossed legs and arms with it, as well as the hands on hips, elbows out position, based on its usage in various things I've read over the years. So looking at the Liberman article, and yours, has been great fun.

  3. Sean, I think that once both Tom Wolfe and Howard Stern have used a word in a different way, the word has definitely taken on a secondary meaning!

  4. Kathleen, what I like about Liberman's style is that he takes a word and uses it to illustrate a larger point, showing us the steps of his deductions. We learn so much more than just the origin of the word 'akimbo'.

    One thing I particularly liked was his offhand knowledge of the doubling of compound words, so that they actually translate as the 'white, white way', or 'hill-hill' as in his examples.

    I also, of course,like his dry sense of humor.

  5. As I was getting ready for work this morning and talking to my dog, (yes, I talk to my dog, she's easy to talk to and never complains when I gripe about something), I stopped for a second, put my hands on my hips, and asked my dog "what's up with that?". I then thought about your blog and mentioned, in case she didn't notice, and she probably didn't but who really knows what goes on in a lemon sized brain, that I was standing "akimbo". You gotta love little bits and pieces of information.

  6. If I had a dog, I would talk to it to. It would look a lot better than what I actually do, which is talk to myself.

    Practicing akimbo with your dog sounds like a good idea, as long it doesn't start thinking that that is its name.

  7. Oh, for anyone who happens to be reading down this far, I will mention that I dreamed last night I had an email from Anatoli Liberman, telling me that I should 'cease and desist'!

  8. Seana, no worries there, my dogs get called so many things they would just add it to the list.

  9. Thank you! As a foreigner I often wondered about it - even quite recently - but never looked it up.

  10. You're welcome. I actually was able to tell a fellow staffmember that that was what her arms were. Sge hadn't known either.

    Frankly, though, I felt even more gratitude from the other staff member who I helped change the paper towels in the restroom.

    My roles are diverse.