Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Archived Topic » Wed Nov 17, 2004 9:53 pm

In the ‘pretty kettle of fish’ posting, the meaning of the phrase included “a confusing, disorderly, topsy-turvy, awkward state of affairs.” ‘Topsy-turvy’ is a strange-sounding word and I was wondering what its origin was – so I looked!

TOPSY-TURVY: 1) adverb (1528): literally upside down and figuratively in a state of utter confusion, disarray, dislocation, chaos; helter-skelter (hmm, also an interesting word) 2) adjective (1618).

Etymology: One theory says it was probably formed from ‘tops’ (plural of ‘top,’ highest point) or ‘top’ with the suffix ‘-sy’ + obsolete ‘terve,’ ‘tirve,’ turn over or turn upside down, topple over, from Middle English ‘terven’ (about 1400). So it might literally have meant ‘top turned over’ Another conjecture says that its original form was ‘topside, turnaway,’ from which evolved ‘topside-turvy,’ and then finally ‘topsy-turvy.’
<1528 “He tourneth all thynge TOPSY TERVY.”—‘ Rede Me and Be Not Wrothe’ (Arber) by Roy, page 51.>

<1597 “To push against a kingdom, with his help / We shall o’erturn it TOPSY-TURVY down.”—1, Henry IV by Shakespeare, IV. I>

<1866 “A world of inconsistencies, where things are all TOPSY-TURVY, so to speak.”—‘Shifting Winds’ by Ballantyne.>
(Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Horsefeathers by Funk, Oxford English Dictionary)

Ken G – July 22, 2004
Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Signature: Topic imported and archived

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