Monday, August 11, 2008

Out of Sorts



Don of Lake Charlevoix asked about the phrase out of sorts.

Out of sorts means not in the usual or normal condition of good health or spirits. A person out of sorts is in an irritable or grumpy state, especially because of physical discomfort. This phrase is linked to the noun sort, which means character, disposition, or rank (“He is a decent sort of guy”). It can also indicate a specific class (“I don’t hang around with that sort of person”). So when you are out of sorts, you have slipped from your usual balanced and happy state or disposition.

A parallel phrase that developed was “out of humor.” In ancient medicine, the four humors were essential bodily fluids. When they were in balance, everything was healthy. When they became unbalanced--out of humor--physical or mental health was jeopardized.

“Out of sorts” seems always to involve a loss, not a gain. In other words, if you are negative and pessimistic by nature, being out of sorts will not make you positive and optimistic. It’s not used in that direction.

I should mention that there is some disagreement connected with the origin of out of sorts. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable mentions three competing theories:

• Sorts was a name for any particular letter used by typographers. So if a printer was “out of sorts,” he couldn’t finish his printing job unless he substituted another letter.
• “The French être dérangé explains the metaphor. If playing cards are out of sorts they are deranged, and if a person is out of sorts, the health or spirits are out of order.”
• “The French ne pas être dans son assiette explains the metaphor.” (He’s not on his plate.) Assiette, aside from meaning sorts or temperament in a metaphorical sense, was an assorted plate. Picture a plate of vegetables or hors d’ouevres. If a piece of carrot falls to the floor, it is out of its proper place. It is out of sorts.

These don’t strike me as definitive, but I’m open to documentation.


Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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