When I posted my latest piece on jar, writer Jag Bhalla, who goes by @hangingnoodles on Twitter, noted:

Indeed, Pandora’s “box” was, as the Ancient Greek records, actually a pithos, a kind of jar.  This word jar has become something like a Pandora’s jar for my writing of late–of course, instead of releasing all sorts of evil into the world, the word has been unleashing all sorts of surprising etymological connections onto my blog.

See, in looking up word origins in etymological dictionaries, sometimes one entry is positioned next to another word that excites my curiosity. When consulting Ernest Weekley on ajar in An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, I came across the entry right below it, akimbo.

I rely on online resources quite a bit for, well, everything I do, but there is something to be said about stumbling upon words simply by flipping through a dictionary during the hunt.

And akimbo, it may also turn out, might just deal with liquid-containing vessels like a jar.


Akimbo–a posture formed by placing the hands on the hips with elbows bent outwards–is an unusual word whose origins are quite mysterious. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records akimbo in the 1400s, taking the late Middle English form of in kenebowe. The first element, in, was reduced to a, much as we saw in ajar.

Concerning kenebowe, however, etymologists puts their arms not akimbo but a-shrug. In bowe, some see a usage of bow, something “bent” or “curved,” as a handle. This is the same bow we see in the one of the key features of akimbo, the elbow. In kene, some etymologists seen keen, “sharp.” So, in keen bow, we get “at a sharp angle,” but the evidence for keen used in this way back then is lacking.

Other etymologists have suggested a Scandinavian origin, pointing to a construction like Old Icelandic’s í keng boginn, which the OED glosses as “bent into a bow.” Boginn is etymologically related to the aforementioned bowand keng cognate to kink. But as we saw with keen, the record doesn’t confirm that a Scandinavian phrase like í keng boginn was ever used to mean “akimbo.”  

Anatoly Liberman dispatches with several additional theories: that akimbo comes from the Italian a sghembo, “awry,  “aslope”; Gaelic cam “bent, crooked”; and a Scandinavian word for a “hillock” or “bundle of hay,” as exemplified in the Icelandic kimbill.

Other word historians suggest kene is related to can, whose historic reference to liquid containers was much broader than its metallic restrictions today. Thus, kenebowe would be like a “pitcher handle.” Picture a pitcher handle. Now, picture two pitcher handles on a jar. It can resemble arms akimbo, no? There is indeed precedence for this metaphor in the Romance languages. Oft cited is the French idiom faire la pot à deux anses, literally, “to play the pot with two handles,” meaning to stand with the hands on the hips (OED). The French anse points us back to the Latin ansātus, “with arms akimbo,” literally, “having handles,” from ansa, “handle.”

"Akimbo." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Akimbo.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

We may never be at ease when it comes to the ultimate origin of akimbo, and etymology is no easy business. But one thing’s for sure: the connections keep coming. Jar leads us to akimbo, and akimbo leads us to…ease? We’ll take the lid off of ease next post.

m ∫ r ∫


3 thoughts on “akimbo

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