I was listening to William H. Macy being interviewed about his TV show Shameless, and he said the writers kept finding ways to throw his character off kilter, the actor’s job being to put the character back… and here he paused (giving me a moment of breathless anticipation: how would he finish this?) and said “back on kilter.” I was amused by the tangle he’d gotten himself into, and of course I wondered what a kilter was originally and how the saying developed. Well, it turns out nobody knows; M-W, AHD, and the Concise Oxford all say the etymology is unknown. The OED (in an article unrevised from 1901) doesn’t add any etymological information, or even guesses, but it surprised me by being under the headword kelter | kilter, saying “Widely diffused in English dialect from Northumbria and Cumberland to Cornwall, and occasional in literature. More frequent in U.S. (in form kilter).” However, the Concise Oxford has it under kilter and doesn’t mention a form kelter, so I guess the latter has either disappeared or retreated into deep dialectal cover.
Also, it goes back a lot further than I expected (the first citation has the modern/U.S. spelling, the next few are with -e-):
1628 W. Bradford Hist. Plymouth Plantation in Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc. (1856) 4th Ser. III. 235 Ye very sight of one [sc. a gun] (though out of kilter) was a terrour unto them.
1643 R. Williams Key into Lang. Amer. 177 Their Gunnes they..often sell many a score to the English, when they are a little out of frame or Kelter.
1674 J. Ray S. & E. Countrey Words in Coll. Eng. Words 69 Kelter or Kilter, Frame, order.
a1677 I. Barrow Serm. Several Occasions (1678) 201 If the organs of Prayer are out of kelter, or out of tune, how can we pray?


  1. Not long ago I read something linking “kilter” to “helter-skelter”. Googling reveals William Sayers‘s page, which claimeth:
    kelter U.S. kilter, helter-skelter reduplicative rhyming formation on medieval Anglo-French antecedents of kelter ‘proper arrangement’ (q.v.), with Anglo-French oltre

  2. Let me try that again, escaping the angled brackets:
    kelter U.S. kilter, < Anglo-French *eschelture ‘the state of being in military formation’ < eschele ‘military formation’ < Latin scala ‘ladder; grid’; ‘Out of kelter, helter-skelter’, Notes and Queries 57 (2010): 179-82.
    helter-skelter reduplicative rhyming formation on medieval Anglo-French antecedents of kelter ‘proper arrangement’ (q.v.), with Anglo-French oltre < Latin ultra ‘beyond’; ‘Out of kelter, helter-skelter’, Notes and Queries 57 (2010): 179-82.

  3. The first two OED quotations suggest that this might have started out as artillery jargon.

  4. Here “guns” would seem to mean “artillery” and not a single gun.

  5. The most interesting part of the interview, NPR’s smarmy amateurism de rigueur, was Macy’s avowal of having had to dirty his polished diction to get acting work. Helter-skelter being an apt word for the impoverished zeitgeist.

  6. No, he said he didn’t get jobs because his diction was too clear. The interviewer was lightly smarmy but Macy’s responses were pithy and very enjoyable. That said, I wouldn’t watch Shameless on a bet.

  7. I had the same reaction.

  8. The Concise Scots Dictionary has
    kelter 1: an outer garment made from homespun broadcloth
    kelter 2: tumble headlong, wriggle, overturn
    kilter: good spirits, fettle chf in or out of
    kilt 2: vti overturn
    n tilt
    kilt 3: the proper way or knack of doing things

  9. Huh, so maybe it’s originally Scots.

  10. John Cowan says

    The OED3 throws shade on the helter-skelter etymology, there being no evidence of skelter ever being used this way. See this summary of the OED3, Wikt, and DSL entries as of 2023.

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