On Carrie Bradshaw and “Eyes akimbo!”

2 Dec
b/w photograph of arms akimbo, cleaned up by Micze

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently been consigned to my bed with illness, with nothing for company but aSex and the City boxset.

In one episode, Carrie walks into a bar, flanked by her friends, and instructs them to look out for an ex-boyfriend with the command ‘Eyes akimbo!

In that instance, I was filled with love for the word ‘akimbo’.  You don’t hear it very often, and when you do, to my mind, we associate it with arms and legs.

And it’s such a strange word!  I can’t think of a word like it in English, other than the playful ‘Crimbo’ for Christmas and the rather ruder ‘bimbo’ and ‘himbo’.   It almost sounds African in origin.

I did also wonder if it bears any relation to ‘askew’, which means ‘crooked’ or ‘off kilter’.

So, on looking it up, ‘akimbo’ is much, much older than you might first think.  The OED records its usage as early as 1400.  And the definition isn’t what I was expecting.  I had thought it meant ‘all over the place’, but actually it means to stand with one’s legs apart, with one’s hands on one’s hips, with the elbows out at right angles.

The word actually started life as ‘kenebowe’ (“The hoost … set his hond in kenebowe” Tale of Beryn c. 1400), and other variations of the word include kenbow (c. 1611), kemboll (c. 1629), kenbol (c. 1600), and kimbow (c. 1678).  The earliest instance of the word being used in conjunction with ‘a’ is in 1629 (‘a kemboll’), common by the late 17th century where you see Hobbes’ Art of Rhetoric – “Setting his arms a-kenbold.’

The ‘a’ then becomes hyphenated to the front of the word for about two hundred years (“John was forced to sit with his Arms a-kimbo.” c. 1712), before James Joyce drops the hyphen in the early 20th century (“Folded akimbo against her waist” Ulysses, 1922).

I believe this is an example of … wait for the fancy linguistic term … metananalysis, which just means that the boundaries of a word change over time (an adder was once a nadder; an apron once a napron and so forth.)

But quite where the word comes from is another mystery.  The OED sounds positively foxed on the topic: “Derivation unknown”.  Of the theories put forward, that the word relates to Icelandic words for ‘crooked’ or a Middle English word for ‘crooked stick’, the OED says “None of these satisfies the condition.”

Wikipedia does speculate on a possible African origin of the word – ‘bakimba’ – which is word used by the Kongo people of west Africa that means exactly the stance described above.  But this does come with the delightful Wikipedia footnote of ‘Dubious – Discuss’.

So akimbo – a useful, delightful word with an entirely mysterious origin!

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4 Responses to “On Carrie Bradshaw and “Eyes akimbo!””

  1. Karain August 16, 2013 at 3:13 am #

    “Eyes akimbo!”… I love it. Somehow you know immediately what she means even though none of us can quite nail down the precise meaning of “akimbo”. Yes, it is an exotic looking and sounding word (I vaguely thought of it as somehow Japanese) and think the meaning has changed… becoming more fluid over time.
    Akimbo does not seem like a good word to describe something symmetrical anyway, as in its original meaning and now it has kind of evolved to mean anything, especially arms and legs, sort of splayed out at odd angles. Although “eyes akimbo” is more faithful to the original meaning. I prefer the new “akimbo”…the more akimbo akimbo.

    • Rum Ram Ruf August 23, 2013 at 11:12 am #

      What a great comment, Karain. You’ve summed it up much better than I did! I am totally going to steal ‘the more akimbo akimbo’ from you. Love it!

      • Karain August 31, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

        Hey, thanks for nice reply. Embarrassed to admit that I stumbled on your Sex and the City akimbo comment and replied to it before I had read past first paragraph and indeed even realized I was on the website of a language and grammar expert! Some kind of weird Internet tunnel vision going on there I guess.
        If I had known I would have been far more apprehensive about my own sentence structure and cleaned things up a bit.
        Always loved the phrase “legs akimbo” but now realize that I was incorrect in thinking it meant something like “legs askew”, another great word and perfectly able to handle the meaning I had ascribed to legs akimbo. So I am now getting more accustomed to the classical definition of akimbo. The symmetrical akimbo. Gosh darn it, I think I like it. You know what, I now think I prefer…the LESS akimbo akimbo.

  2. Mark Adams October 9, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    Akimbo is generally used to describe arms and legs. “Eyes akimbo” was was first used by the Firesign Theatre to denote cross-eyed. “It was a jackal-headed woman with her eyes akimbo, a King sitting sideways on his throne, a drip with gold, chipped nose up-lifted-thusly! All engraven on a Pyramis of Massey size, with the body of a Lion, paws that refreshes, a tale told by an idiot, and the head of a Fox!

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