The realization started with the word akimbo. I had first learned it as meaning a stance with hands on the hips, and I associated the stance with the comic book image of Superman confronting evildoers. Body language experts sometimes call this a power pose, intended to project confidence or dominance.
From time to time, I had encountered akimbo used to mean haphazardly sprawled, in expressions like “arms and legs akimbo,” but I assumed it was an error. And I’d seen the occasional phrasing “legs akimbo,” which referred to a splayed position.
Then I ran across “studiously akimbo hair,” which seemed to connote an intentional messiness. It was time to check some dictionaries.
I found that akimbo comes from a Middle English phrase in kenebowe, which meant “at a sharp angle.” Arms and hands had been in kenebowe since the 1400s and a-kimbo from the 1800s. In the nineteenth century we find a tailor on a bench with his legs akimbo and a man dancing with knees akimbo. There are hearts akimbo, hats akimbo, curtains akimbo, and, yes, hair akimbo. Today there’s even an action movie called “Guns Akimbo.” The Oxford English Dictionary yields a 1940s Mayfair slang use for being on one’s high horse, with the example “She got terribly akimbo.” Bent out of shape, perhaps?
By now, it was clear to me that my narrow conception of akimbo had gone askew. I got curious about what other lexical preconceptions of mine might be in disarray, so I turned to penultimate and erstwhile.
Penultimate is still defined as “next to last,” though Merriam-Webster notes that it is sometimes used as an “intensified version of ultimate,” but not usually in edited prose. Erstwhile too is still defined as “former,” though it is sometimes used as a synonym for esteemed or as a fancy way ofsaying worthwhile.
It’s not hard to see how these meanings could shift in use. When someone refers to the “penultimate scene” of a play or “an erstwhile professor,” listeners may understand these as referring to a finale or an eminence. Vagueness permits some drift in common usage, but the specificity of the older definitions provides a strong counterweight. It’s one thing for a dictionary to go from akimbo to askew, but a bit harder to get from the meaning of final to next-to-last or of esteemed to former.
A word that has shifted like akimbo is cohort. From its beginnings as a tenth of a Roman legion, the word was later extended to other bands of warriors and to people united in a common cause. Later it also came to refer to a group sharing a demographic characteristic (such as an age cohort or a cohort of students).
Since a cohort is a group and groups are made up of individuals, cohort also came to refer to one’s compatriots. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the gloss “assistant, colleague, accomplice,” and one of the citations is a bit of snark from a 1965 issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “The new American vulgarism of ‘cohort’ meaning ‘partner’.”
And by the way, even though you might be in cahoots with your cohorts, the two words don’t seem to be related. Cahoot is most likely related to the French word cahute referring to a cabin or hut, where one might form a partnership away from prying eyes.
Words shift their meanings for a lot of reasons. For akimbo and cohort, the fuzziness of their early meanings (“limbs askew” and “band of individuals”) has left room for new standard meanings. In other cases, as with penultimate and erstwhile, dictionaries have resisted including the newer, casual uses. For now.
And sometimes, there is a split decision. Recognizing that some people blur amused and bemused, Merriam Webster gives the sense “wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing.” The OED sticks with the sense of confused, muddled, or stupefied.
I’m bemused for now but waiting to see how those meanings play out in the future.