Ruthie v. idioms

Yesterday’s One Big Happy has Ruthie coping with idiomaticity:

The whole idiom here is (be) out of sorts (with two somewhat different senses), and Ruthie understands something of its meaning as a whole, but she’s also trying to understand it as to some extent compositional, with the parts out of and a noun sorts (whatever that refers to). There are several possible senses for out of; the one Ruthie’s fixed on is an opposite of in (but there’s at least one other sense she might have gone for).

NOAD2 gives two senses for out of sorts:

slightly unwell: feeling nauseous and generally out of sorts

in low spirits; irritable: the trying events of the day had put him out of sorts

What Ruthie’s grandfather intended by saying she was out of sorts, and what Ruthie understood him as saying, seems to have been the ‘in low spirits’ sense. However, Ruthie is now in good spirits, great high spiirits in fact.

Ruthie understood the out of in out of sorts to be, roughly, not in (with the further nuance that being in is the expected state). Saying that someone is out of the office is saying that they’re not (now) in the office, though they would be expected to be in the office, implicating that they were in the office earlier (and will be back in the office in the future). Similarly, saying that someone is walking around the house out of their clothes is saying that they’re not (now) in their clothes (that is, not wearing them), though they would be expected to be in their clothes, implicating that they were wearing their clothes earlier, and that they’ll put their clothes back on in the future. Notice Ruthie’s back in the last panel.

Another possible out of would have been this one from NOAD2:

out of not having  [more accurately: no longer having] (a particular thing): they had run out of cash

(Or simply: They were out of cash. They had cash before, but don’t have it now.)

If Ruthie had gotten this interpretation, she wouldn’t have said ” I‘m back in ’em” in the last panel, but rather “I have ’em back/again”.

But where, you ask, does out of sorts come from? Michael Quinion looked at the question in a 4/8/00 column on his World Wide Words site, where he had to chop his way through two initially plausible but indefensible origin stories:

Q: From Ron Vaughn: Where does the expression out of sorts come from? What are sorts in this context? My wife accuses me of this malady and I know what she means, but I don’t know why I know.

A: English idioms are often extremely puzzling and their origins are notoriously difficult to track down. So people invent all kinds of yarns to make sense of them.

The most common story about this phrase refers to the printer’s word sorts for the individual metal characters in his boxes of type, so called because they have been arranged, each into its own compartment, with all of one kind together. It would obviously be a substantial inconvenience if a printer were to run out of a sort during composition. The problem with this story is that the figurative expression out of sorts is recorded much earlier than the printers’ term; the first recorded use of it for printers’ type in the big Oxford English Dictionary is from as late as 1784, from Benjamin Franklin: “The founts, too, must be very scanty, or strangely out of sorts”. It would seem he was attaching an already well-known idiom to the printer’s trade, not the other way around.

A second idea is that it has something to do with playing cards. A pack that hasn’t been shuffled is said to be out of sort and not suitable for playing with. The problem with this is that the OED doesn’t give any example of its being used in this connection, which it surely would if the expression had been common.

The Latin original of our word sort was applied to a piece of wood that was used for drawing lots. Later, still in Latin, it developed into the idea of one’s fate, fortune or condition. This was the first meaning of sort in English, in the thirteenth century. It survived until shortly after Shakespeare’s time, until about the point that out of sorts is first found. But sort soon evolved another meaning in English that related to rank, order, or class. It was used to describe people, especially their qualities or standing. There were once phrases such as of sort that implied high quality or rank. Others that we still use today, such as of your own sort, the right sort, or of all sorts, evolved out of the same idea.

It would seem out of sorts developed from this idea of quality (lack of it in this case), perhaps influenced by the other meaning of fate or one’s lot in life, so implying that fortune wasn’t smiling on one, or that all wasn’t well.

Note that there’s still some speculation here, but it’s speculation based on known pieces of history.

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