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Some friends over lunch suggested this word.
“Sounds African” they said.
Does elbow sound African? Does bimbo or gumbo?
Okay, well gumbo is, but bimbo, elbow and akimbo are not.
Akimbo is a position of the arms, elbows bent with hands on hips.
All derivations of this word connect the bo ending of the word with the bow meaning “to bend.” That is also why the elbow has a bow as part of its name, it bends.
The word akimbo is at least 600 years old and one source points to a literal meaning of “a keen bow” meaning “a sharp bend”—which is fairly apt since in this stance the arms are bent about 90 degrees or more.
English got the word from Old Norse, not Africa.
We’d never know that however, if it were not for the efforts of the Early English Text Society. This was a group formed back in 1864 under the influence of Frederick James Furnivall.
The objective was to bring ancient musty texts out of inaccessible libraries and reproduce them in modern volumes for all to see and study.
It was in one of these that our word akimbo unexpectedly appeared more than 200 years earlier than the next citation in the 1600s.
Furnivall went on to be the second editor of what became The Oxford English Dictionary. Although unquestionably a critically important figure in the development of the documentation of the record of the English language, some accounts say that Furnivall nearly killed the OED in its infancy.
Evidently he was not the easiest man to work with and he set records for employee turnover.
Just for the record, bimbo comes from Italian, from bambino meaning “little child” or “baby.”
Before bimbo referred to an attractive but stupid woman, it meant a tough but stupid man. These changes came over pretty quickly since bimbo hasn’t been part of English for 100 years yet.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.