Last post, the word jar lead us to akimbo, with the latter possibly running parallel to the Latin adjective, ansātus, whose literal meaning of “furnished with a handle” the Ancient Romans likened to having one’s arms akimbo. Ansātus, we learned, is from the noun ansa, a “handle.” Our work with this ansa, however, is not yet done, for it may also be related to ease.

"Elbow room." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Elbow room.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


We cannot speak to the origin of ease with ease. We do know that English takes ease from the French aise,”comfort.” You might recognize aise in malaise, a direct borrowing of the French for “discomfort.” But the earliest usages of aise in French are actually “elbow room” and “opportunity.” How’d that happen?

Skeat, Weekley, and Partridge conclude that aise, formed from aisance, is from the Latin adjacentia, literally “something nearby.” You can quickly spot the English adjacent. According to Baumgartner and Ménard, “something adjacent” is connected to “the free space next to someone,” which produced an idea of a “nice location” and more generally, “wellness” and “recreation.”

Some, like Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge, proposed that aise is ultimately from–here it is again–ansa, “handle” of a jug or jar, say. This ansa had a secondary sense of “opportunity,” so the record states, and may have evolved to asa on the roads of the Roman empire, later evolving into French’s aise.

OK, a “handle” is something to seize, to grab onto, an opportunity. Ansātus, as we’ve seen, is “with arms akimbo.” This explains the connection to elbow room. But how do we get to “comfort”? And do we know anything deeper about ansa? For these questions, we are looking at not the handle, but the little hole that the loop of the handle creates.

This is why etymology is not always easy but easily fascinating. Yes, easy is related to ease, as are a wealth of expressions, from “ill at ease” to “take it easy.” I think this is my cue to let jar, and all its many handles I clutched these past two weeks, be at ease.

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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.

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