The origin of “out of kilter” is unknown, though the phrase itself has been in use since the 1600s. Kilter or kelter means good condition, so you can be both in kilter or out of kilter, though generally at separate times. “Off kilter,” which is a variation “out of kilter” and means the same thing, seems to have originated in the 1920s.
The origin of “out of whack” is also unknown, though the word “whack,” meaning to hit something, was used as early as the 1700s, and “out of whack” itself has been used since 1885. It’s been conjectured that “out of whack” refers to machinery that needs to be whacked to get it going, but the truth is anyone’s guess.
The origin for haywire is known, however, and is a relatively new term, only about a hundred years old. The etymology is obvious when you think about it: hay + wire. Haywire or baling wire is a thin, flexible wire that is used to hold bales of hay together, and was the equivalent of today’s duct tape. I’m sure you’ve heard of old vehicles being held together by baling wire. So not only does haywire refer to shoddy or makeshift work, the wire itself, once it’s off the spool, gets easily tangled. Hence something that is out of whack or off kilter is also haywire.
I seldom break things. Though stuff does slip through my fingers all too frequently, the items are either unbreakable or they fall softly without breaking, but last night I knocked over a champagne flute that was on the kitchen counter, (I was toasting the day after my first Christmas in my first house with sparkling cider). Although the flute simply fell over onto its side, it shattered. Took me forever to clean up all the crystal crumbs!
Then later, as I was lounging on the couch drinking tea and reading, I got a text. After responding to the text, I reached out to put my phone on the table and knocked over the empty mug. It too shattered.
Neither of these breakages meant anything (except that I had one less flute and one less mug), but it showed how far I’ve come in the last ten years. About seven months after Jeff died, I dropped a mug. It shattered on the hard tile kitchen floor, and set me back into full grief mode. I couldn’t stop crying for days. It was one more thing gone out of the life we shared, and it struck me as horrendously sad that stuff was going to break, wear out, get used up until there was nothing left of “us”?
Last night, there was no emotional aftershock. The things broke, and I cleaned them up. End of story. Well, except for the part of wondering why things were so off kilter. Which of course, led me to wonder what kilter meant, which led me to out of whack, which led to haywire.
Which leads to my New Year’s wish for you — that your life remains in kilter all next year.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.