akimbo

To stand akimbo is to have one’s hands on one’s hips with the elbows turned outward. The word dates to the fifteenth century, but its origin is unknown. There are, however, a number of competing hypotheses.

The word began as a prepositional phrase, on or in kenebowe. The on preposition was subsequently reduced to a. The preposition on can lose its final -n when unstressed, becoming a. That much of the word’s origin is certain. The earliest known use of the term is from the fifteenth century poem The Tale of Beryn, line 1837–38:

The hoost made an hidouse cry, in gesolreut be haut,
And set his hond in kenebowe ; he lakkid nevir a faute

(The host made a hideous cry, a haughty G note,
And set his hand akimbo; he never was critical of a fault)

That explains the a- prefix, but the -kimbo root is more difficult. There are three explanations that have some degree of plausibility, although all three should be treated with skepticism.

The first is that it is a compound of the Anglo-Norman cane (flagon, pitcher) + bow. In other words, when standing akimbo one’s arms resemble a jughandle.

The second is that it is from an Old Norse phrase í keng boginn (bent like a bow). Unfortunately, this phrase is unattested and doesn’t actually appear in any extant writing from the period.

The third is that it is a compound of the Middle English keen + bow, alluding to the sharply bent elbows.

The term started out as on/in kenebowe in the fifteenth century. By the middle of the seventeenth century the on/in had been reduced to a, and the n had shifted to m. The a began to be hyphenated by the early eighteenth century, a-kimbo, and by the early nineteenth, it was simply akimbo.

The meaning of the word expanded too. By the nineteenth century akimbo was being used for the legs as well. And beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, the word was being used more generally to mean askew or disorderly. The word’s use as an adjective is in the last sense, so in 2002 Esquire magazine could write:

He is still blue, with mitteny hands and startled, akimbo eyebrows.


Sources:

Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001–14, s. v. kene-boue (n.)

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2008, s. v. a, prep.1

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2012, s. v. akimbo, adv. and adj.

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