Off-kilter and out of kilter

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Off-kilter and out of kilter are two expressions that mean the same thing. We will examine the meaning of the terms off-kilter and out of kilter, how they entered the English language as well as some examples of their use in sentences.

The terms off-kilter and out of kilter mean not in good condition or not in the conventional condition. The word kilter means harmony or in balance, and is considered a fossil word. A fossil word is an obsolete word that is no longer in common use, yet is preserved in certain phrases or idioms. Kilter was originally rendered as kelter, used at least since the 1500s in certain Scottish and English dialects to mean good order or good health. For unknown reasons, during the 1600s the word kelter began to take on the spelling of kilter, and the two words coexisted for several hundred years. Eventually, the words fell out of use except in the phrases off-kilter and out of kilter, which are today primarily, but not solely, American expressions. Note that off-kilter is used as either an adjective or an adverb modifier, and is hyphenated. Out of kilter is also hyphenated when used as an adjective before a noun, as in out-of-kilter.


The puckish title sets the tone for an evening of off-kilter absurdity geared to ladies “of a certain age.” (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

It’s a little early to pass judgement on the series but the first issue is a welcome return to the off-kilter world of the Endless, enhanced immeasurably by J.H. Williams’ sumptuous visuals. (The Indian Express)

There was even a popular saying back in ancient times that commented on things deemed out of kilter. (The Waikato Times)