April 6, 2018

I have been challenged in my use of "akimbo" in "posing on the chair arm with an arm akimbo."

I knew that was a risky phrase, because the cliché is "arms akimbo," but does that mean "akimbo" relates only to the 2-armed gesture? In the comments to the post, ballyfager said "How do you make that 'arm akimbo'? My understanding is that arms akimbo (as it is usually expressed) is hands on hips." Well, the answer to how is just that you're doing it only on one side, but the issue is whether "akimbo" is restricted to 2 sides. Another question is whether "akimbo" is only about the hands-on-hips pose (which seems to be the only way people use it)? Here I am, trying to use it just slightly more broadly, to cover the unilateral and not bilateral arm position, but why isn't it a much more useful word?

Now, let me pause a moment, to talk about Kevin B. Williamson, who's so much in the news this week. He mostly got in trouble (and fired from The Atlantic) for opining that women deserve hanging if they got an abortion, but he was also criticized for writing, back in 2014:
"Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka! White devil! F*** you, white devil!" The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.
The word that got him in trouble was "primate," but notice "akimbo." Do monkeys and apes — like their fellow primates, us humans — display territoriality with arms akimbo? They have such long arms compared to ours. It's a weird picture, in my head.

Oh, but I guess Williamson didn't mean "With hands on hips and elbows turned outwards" (the OED's first definition of "akimbo," and the one I, reading Williamson, assumed). I couldn't find an image of an ape or monkey standing like that, but then I reread Williamson's turgid prose and noticed the hands are on the chest, not the hips, and I can easily picture a gorilla doing that.

Anyway, back to the OED. The oldest examples have the arms or hands "in kenebowe" or "on kenbow." It becomes "akimbo" in the 1700s. What's a "kenbow"*?!

The word, which seems so restrictive to us today, did get wider meaning in the 1800s. It could refer to legs and meant "spread or flung out widely or haphazardly." (Did both legs have to be doing that, or could one leg be akimbo?) And it became "More generally: askew, awry; in disorder":
c1796 C. Dibdin in Songster's Compan. (ed. 9) 203 In life's voyage, should you trust a false friend with the helm, The top lifts of his heart all akimbo, A tempest of treachery your bark will o'erwhem.
1880 T. W. Reid Politicians of To-day II. 253 They do not wear their hats akimbo.
Ah! There's only one head for the hat and the hat can be "akimbo." And what of the heart? Only one of those.**

And in the 20th century, "akimbo" became also "Crooked, bent, or askew; that is in disorder, awry."
1959 New Yorker 5 Dec. 146 He tended to match all of Coleman's near-atonal plunges with akimbo melodic lines of his own.
2002 Esquire Sept. 80/1 He is still blue, with mitteny hands and startled, akimbo eyebrows.
Yes, but can one eyebrow be akimbo while the other maintains its orderly position?... Hmm???!
That picture is from "A DEFINITIVE RANKING OF WHITE MALE COMEDIANS RAISING ONE EYEBROW IN A PUBLICITY SHOT" at Thermocow. And speaking of cows, I could not find a photo of a monkey or ape getting its eyebrow (if any) into a position like that.

By the way, I never cared whether I was technically right or wrong in the proper use of "akimbo." I think if you know the standard meaning, with its bilateralism, you immediate get the unilateral concept, and it may be even better, because it's jocose.
_______________

* I was distracted by ballyfager's challenge to the correctness of my usage, but going back to the Jordan Peterson post, I see that before ballyfager wrote his comment, another commenter, Mike Sylwester, undertook some "akimbo" research and even reveals what a "kenbow" is:
I found a long article by Anatoly Liberman, whose Wikipedia article about him begins as follows:
... a professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, where since 1975 he has taught courses on the history of all the Germanic languages and literatures, folklore, mythology, lexicography, European structuralism and Russian formalism. He has published works on Germanic historical phonetics, English etymology, mythology/folklore, the history of philology, and poetic translation. He publishes a blog, “The Oxford Etymologist”.

He is an advocate of spelling reform.
Liberman's article about the etymology of the word akimbo is titled "Akimbo: An Embarrassment of Riches" and is published on the Oxford University Press's Blog.
Akimbo surfaced as in kenebowe (1400). More than two centuries later the variants a kenbol(l) ~ a kenbold appeared. ...

The Icelandic words kimbill, kimpill, and kimbli “bundle of hay; hillock,” once compared with akimbo, exist. According to some old dictionaries, they mean “the handle of a pot or jug,” but they do not. Their root is related to Engl. comb and was used in Germanic for coining the names of fastenings, barrel staves, and so forth.

However, similar words (kimble, kemmel, and many others), designating various vessels (not handles), are current in modern British English and Swedish dialects. For this reason, Ernest Weekley set up Middle Engl. kimbo “pot ear, pitcher handle.” The metaphor, from a pitcher with two handles to a person with hands akimbo, is perfect and widespread.

In kenebowe may have been a conscious translation of the French phrase en anses “on the handles,” as Weekley says, but why is it so different from present day Engl. akimbo, especially if we remember that Middle Engl. kimbo has been reconstructed rather than recorded and that 17th century authors knew kembol(l). What happened to final –l? Weekley did not provide an answer to those questions.

Akembol could not develop from in kenebowe in a natural way. More likely, it was a product of folk etymology, perhaps indeed under the influence of the names of pots and jugs. Akimbo surfaced as in kenebowe (1400).
** But the line is "The top lifts of his heart all akimbo," and I'm thinking about those vessels with handles (see footnote *, supra), and maybe the "top lifts" are the blood vessels on the top of heart which look kind of like handles.

By the way, to get back to Williamson's idea of hanging women, "to have the lift" means to be hanged: "And thiefes must hang, and knaves must shift, And silly fooles must have the lift."

37 comments:

theribbonguy said...

Apparently Williamson never said the offensive comment....

https://twitchy.com/sarahd-313035/2018/04/06/narrative-busted-heres-proof-kevin-williamson-is-not-the-monster-the-left-wants-him-to-be-video/?utm_campaign=twitchywidget

I put up the Twitchy link because the video is cued to the relevant part.

Nonapod said...

I googled words that people commonly use incorrectly and found this. One that jumped out at me:

2. Factoid
Wrong meaning: A small fact.

Right meaning: A false fact.


I'm pretty sure I've used the incorrect meaning for years.

James said...

There's a song, "Doubting Woman", I always liked by the late great Vic Chesnutt. But there's a line I never really understood - "Even her freakish nipples are akimbo". What the hell does that mean? Sadly, we can't ask him.

Scott said...

Arms and nipples akimbo
while dancing on the head of a pin.

Mike Sylwester said...

Liberman's article indicates that during the 1600s the expression sometimes was pronounced as akenbold. It seems to me that this pronunciation might have arisen from a folk etymology that the word indicated a bold pose.

Ann Althouse said...

"Wrong meaning: A small fact. Right meaning: A false fact."

Well, I strongly remember when Norman Mailer introduced the word and defined it in "Marilyn." It was a big part of the criticism of the book at the time.

But I think the life of his coinage was limited, and there was a separate coinage with the other meaning, and those who did the second coinage did not notice Mailer's earlier effort to control the discourse. It was used a lot on TV, like with on-screen titles saying "factoid" and then some supposedly tantalizing little fact.

I saw that happening in the 1980s, and I was yelling at the screen saying: Don't you idiots realize that you're admitting you're wrong? (Because Mailer owned the word and controlled the meaning.) In retrospect, I think, the non-Mailer coinage won the war.

Mike Sylwester said...

Even her freakish nipples are akimbo

Before I informed myself about the word today, I thought mistakenly that akimbo meant something like pointed in asymmetrical directions.

Perhaps other people shared my own mistaken understanding of the word's meaning.

Ann Althouse said...

And now I've looked up "factoid" in the OED and it totally supports what I remembered. There are 2 separate definitions, the first going back to Mailer: "1. An item of information accepted as a fact, although not (or not necessarily) true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often as to be popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact."

"1973 N. Mailer Marilyn i. 18/2 Factoids..that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority."

Then there's a separate definition ‚ " A brief or trivial piece of information, esp. any of a list of such items presented together" — beginning in the 80s:

"1982 Washington Post 16 May (Book World section) 3/1 A great lump of a book that never stirs from its obsessive accumulation of factoids."

Ann Althouse said...

Mailer's coinage is a better deployment of the suffix "-oid" — which refers to resemblance or similarity to the thing (not a small example of the thing).

They should have used "minifact" of "factette" or something for the second meaning.

But it's wrong to say the "small fact" meaning is wrong.

traditionalguy said...

Perhaps holding arms dropped down by the sides is the natural resting position. But raising ones arms to waist level to tackle an opponent's body indicates a violent control of others move. For example, the wrestler has arms akimbo in standing. The Basketball defense player has arms akimbo to occupy space. The football linebacker catching a runner has arms akimbo. All do it to catch and control another Human.

Ergo: Arms Akimbo is the beginning stance of a HUG.

mccullough said...

The hips are the sockets on anterior side (left and right) where the femoral head and acetabulum meet. The pelvis has an iliac crest on each side (lateral). Those are not the “hips.”

I liked the arm akimbo reference. But if people want to get pedantic, then don’t half ass it. Put your hands on your pelvic crests while you flex your biceps.

Bad Lieutenant said...

For some reason 18 magazine I was exposed to in my youth had a picture of someone in the posture of a gunfighter standing ready to draw and shoot. He was described as having arms akimbo, which in the photograph did not mean hands on hips, but hands poised just over hips ready to grasp hypothetical gun butts.

Bad Lieutenant said...

18//A teen

66 said...

Williamson’s description is a little hard to follow, so perhaps the proper description of his prose is turbid.

Although without a doubt, this is a reasonably turgid comment. Assuming of course one admits commentary can contain degrees of turgidity, otherwise strike the “reasonably.”

tcrosse said...

The singular form of 'trivia' is 'trivia', I was surprised to learn. So an insignificant fact can be a trivia, although one is tempted to back-form it to 'trivium'.

robother said...

I thought the universal primate challenge involved hands on the hips, elbows akimbo and a pelvic thrust. Don't know where I got that idea.

tcrosse said...

I thought the universal primate challenge involved hands on the hips, elbows akimbo and a pelvic thrust. Don't know where I got that idea.

That was the Alice Kramden position.

William said...

Until today I never knew the meaning of arms akimbo, nor have I ever had the occasion to use it. It's a useful phrase that describes a common pose. You can't really call it antiquated or obscure, but it's unficused......English is a democratic language. The arbiter of the meaning of words is not the Academy but the people. A word means what people understand it to mean.

langford peel said...

I thought Akimbo was the name of one of Beyonces kids?

itzik basman said...


Apart from the exact meaning of “akimbo” here, the phrase “primate territorial challenge” is more defensible than it is attackable. He’s not literally calling the kid a monkey. That view takes some reading in and extrapolating, which isn’t to say that that case can’t be made. But I judge it a weak one. He’s saying literally that the kid puts his palms on his collarbone with his elbows extended outwards. That’s the literal description. Then he characterizes that literal gesture as the “universal” one of primate territorial challenge. That it’s “universal” cuts against the reading that sees the kid being called a monkey. What Williamson describes is himself being seen and called out as the enemy, the “white devil,” “Cracka,” who gets a “Fuck you,” invading a foreign land where he ought not be. Williamson is setting up an elemental opposition here in wanting to paint how dire things are racially in East St. Louis, Illinois, so dire that what’s going is primal, elemental and in that universal. So in that context the reference to a “primate” gesture is apt. It’s white and black stripped down in East St. Louis to what is humanly basic, turf and its invasion. Williamson’s own defense of his phrase is that “we’re all primates,” (which is true, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-are-humans-primates-97419056/). And that defense comports with how I suggest that opening paragraph should be read.

Defending textually what Williamson’s written actually leads to understanding how literarily skillful the whole paragraph is, how much is going on it beyond what I’ve just pointed out. The little basic drama between invading white man and kid is couched in humor, the humor of it being a little nine year old kid who is the main actor, the humor in the description of him as a pint size, fractional Snoop Dog, the humor in the shift in point of view to the kid’s mother expressing by her look yet another human universal gesture, namely, “....as though to say, “Kids say the darnedest things...” and the humor of the juxtaposed tail end of what she seems to be expressing, “...do they not white devil?” fusing humorously Williamson as the perceived “white devil” with “white devil” being simply the name he goes by in casual conversation.

In sum, I say, it’s a literarily rich paragraph, which when properly understood betrays no racism

LordSomber said...

Arms Akimbo was a great Atlanta band from the '80's.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpyahc4UXxg

rcocean said...

Lets do the Akimbo - that new dance craze that's sweeping the nation!

Ann Althouse said...

"Apparently Williamson never said the offensive comment.... I put up the Twitchy link because the video is cued to the relevant part."

It just has him speaking about the remark on one occasion several years ago, specifying what I've always assumed, that he's not advocating executing women for having abortions in the past during the period when the existing law said abortions were legal, that is that he didn't want an ex post facto law. He still made other comments on other occasions.

Thanks for the recognition that Twitchy is a very biased presentation.

Big Mike said...

Well that takes me back. The only previous time I encountered the word “akimbo” was an old book I read as a young man some sixty years ago, give or take. It was one of many of the type written shortly after World War I and targeted at young men — the protagonists always spoke in full sentences and never, never ended a sentence with a preposition. A veteran scout — a real military job in pre-World War II — was explaining how a man could hide in plain sight “with arms all akimbo” if he was dressed to blend in with the background and stood very still. It made an impression on me.

tcrosse said...

What do the drums say, Akimbo ?
They say Boom-titty-Boom-Boom, Bwana.

Michael said...

The "universal (male) primate challenge" is beating your chest - pounding your upper sternum with closed hands with elbows out, preferably while yelling like Tarzan. There's nothing racial about it.

Sally said...

Tom Wolfe used the phrase repeatedly in Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full.

Unknown said...

They should have used "minifact" of "factette" or something for the second meaning.

I've coined "factibble" for this use when I found out about factoid. It hasn't caught on, but this blog has a big readership. Perhaps it will.

one is tempted to back-form it to 'trivium'.

Although I do like that idea.

The Germans Have A Word For That. said...

When I see the word 'akimbo' I automatically think of Egon Schiele.

So I Google Egon Schiele and Akimbo and get:

• An article from the 3/21/94 issue of New York Magazine. Describing his paintings, they say " Their bravado poses — often perfectly naked, with arms and legs akimbo..."

• From 'Egon Schiele | A Year of Positive Thinking': "This work's intimate, pitiless yet deeply humanistic focus on a newborn baby, body akimbo and marked by the disproportionality of the neonatal, painted in the vivid colors of birth, pink, purple, and red washes and and impasto yellow belly button..."

• A quote from a book called 'The Ruins of California': "Over the year Justine had made an impact on his life in many small but noticeable ways—the driving gloves he wore, a heavy cashmere throw at the foot of his bed, a black-faced Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch on his wrist, an Egon Schiele lithograph of a nude with her legs akimbo on his bedroom wall..."

• A quote from a book called 'Arrogance: A Novel': "Egon flaps a self-portrait over the windowsill — the artist in a white vest, checkered shirt, his arms akimbo in his characteristic pose..."

So many people think of Egon Schiele they generally think of 'akimbo'.

And when they think of his contemporary, Gustav Klimt, they think: "Hey! My girlfriend in college had that poster on her wall!"

The Germans have a word for that.

JackOfClubs said...

Merriam-Webster uses the singular in its primary definition of Akimbo "1: having the hand on the hip and the elbow turned outward"

I tried adopting the posture that Williamson describes, but I couldn't get my palms to touch my clavicles. The closest I could get was my thumbs, with palms resting on my upper chest. If I crossed my arms I could get the palms to reset on the opposite clavicles but that looked more defensive than challenging. Maybe I am not sufficiently primatoid.

narayanan said...

Professor - You say "Mailer's coinage is a better deployment of the suffix "-oid" — which refers to resemblance or similarity to the thing (not a small example of the thing)"

how about - aster / asteroid

narayanan said...

"trivium" was the snooty put down by "quadrivials" in Oxford and Cambridge

tcrosse said...

Hemorrhoid. Tabloid.

Ann Althouse said...

“Asteroid” was intended to mean star-like.

Ann Althouse said...

“Hemorrhoid” isn’t constructed from a root + oid. It’s more “hemo” for blood, then all the rest of the letters, meaning flowing.

Ann Althouse said...

“Tabloid” originated as a trademark. A drug company just invented it for its compressed pills.

It acquired the second meaning and there was a lawsuit about that:

1903 Mr Justice Byrne 20 Nov.–14 Dec. in Rep. Patent & Trade Mark Cases 21 69 The word Tabloid has become so well-known..in consequence of the use of it by the Plaintiff firm in connection with their compressed drugs that I think it has acquired a secondary sense in which it has been used and may legitimately be used so long as it does not interfere with their trade rights. I think the word has been so applied generally with reference to the notion of a compressed form or dose of anything.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

I knew a Nigerian guy in college named Akimbo, but everyone called him 'Arms'.

... he actually WAS A Reasonable Man, despite frequently striking a pose that projected a sort of primitive dominance.

Later, when he was transferring, we gave him a book by Hemmingway.