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Out of sorts

Q From Ron Vaughn: Where does the expression out of sorts come from? What are sorts in this context? My wife accuses me of this malady and I know what she means, but I don’t know why I know.

A English idioms are often extremely puzzling and their origins are notoriously difficult to track down. So people invent all kinds of yarns to make sense of them.

The most common story about this phrase refers to the printer’s word sorts for the individual metal characters in his boxes of type, so called because they have been arranged, each into its own compartment, with all of one kind together. It would obviously be a substantial inconvenience if a printer were to run out of a sort during composition. The problem with this story is that the figurative expression out of sorts is recorded much earlier than the printers’ term; the first recorded use of it for printers’ type in the big Oxford English Dictionary is from as late as 1784, from Benjamin Franklin: “The founts, too, must be very scanty, or strangely out of sorts”. It would seem he was attaching an already well-known idiom to the printer’s trade, not the other way around.

A second idea is that it has something to do with playing cards. A pack that hasn’t been shuffled is said to be out of sort and not suitable for playing with. The problem with this is that the OED doesn’t give any example of its being used in this connection, which it surely would if the expression had been common.

The Latin original of our word sort was applied to a piece of wood that was used for drawing lots. Later, still in Latin, it developed into the idea of one’s fate, fortune or condition. This was the first meaning of sort in English, in the thirteenth century. It survived until shortly after Shakespeare’s time, until about the point that out of sorts is first found. But sort soon evolved another meaning in English that related to rank, order, or class. It was used to describe people, especially their qualities or standing. There were once phrases such as of sort that implied high quality or rank. Others that we still use today, such as of your own sort, the right sort, or of all sorts, evolved out of the same idea.

It would seem out of sorts developed from this idea of quality (lack of it in this case), perhaps influenced by the other meaning of fate or one’s lot in life, so implying that fortune wasn’t smiling on one, or that all wasn’t well.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Apr. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 8 April 2000.