Legs Akimbo

By Simon Kewin

“Legs akimbo” is a phrase used so much it has become a cliché, and clichés are obviously something to be avoided if you want to create interesting, vivid writing. But you should also be aware that “legs akimbo” is logically meaningless.

According to the OED, “akimbo” means :

“with hands on the hips and elbows turned outwards” (origin, probably from Old Norse).

It might just be possible to achieve such a stance in a Science Fiction story (if an alien had arms protruding from its legs), but otherwise, you simply can’t stand “legs akimbo”.

Of course, as with many questions of grammar, it could be argued that it doesn’t matter that words are being used incorrectly, so long as the reader understands what the writer meant. It’s a long-running debate. Language is constantly evolving and new meanings are always emerging. But writers need to be aware of the technically correct usage of words because they need to write in different voices. If, say, they are writing a piece of colloquial dialogue, “legs akimbo” might well be fine, if that’s the sort of thing the character might say. If, however, they were writing in an authoritative, narrative voice, or penning a query letter to a publisher, then the phrase should clearly not be used.

Quite how you could get the phrase “legs akimbo” into a query letter to a publisher, meanwhile, is another matter …

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15 Responses to “Legs Akimbo”

  • Brad K.

    @ Simon,

    “achieve such a stance in a Science Fiction story” – the story you are looking for is Lois McMaster Bujold’s _Falling Free_. The quaddies – genetically engineered for zero-gravity space habitat living and working, with two pairs of arms – also show up in a couple of her Miles Vorkosigan adventures, both short stories and the _Diplomatic Immunity_ novel.

    “What won’t they think of next?” – But what haven’t they thought of!

    My Chambers dictionary runs through several potential derivations, most having to do with the crook or bend of the elbow or joint.

    Extrapolating, I might think “legs akimbo” in the plural, would be bow-legged. Except. The issue seems to be the bend, or break, of the joint. Such as an actor’s bow, that is, bending the knee or breaking the line of the leg.

    [unsupported conjecture insert] I would think that akimbo would come about in a context where the arm shouldn’t be bent – as in a military or other formal inspection. Or possibly a detail of protocol – such as description of a bow meant to convey a certain nuance of meaning (as in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe novels). The term implies disapproval of the posture. That is, the arm should be unbent, the hand not braced on the body but depending from the arm.[end unsupported conjecture insert]

  • Amazing Blair

    Simon,
    What’s this you say?

    [quote]“Legs akimbo” is a phrase used so much it has become a cliché, and clichés are obviously something to be avoided[/quote]

    Far from cliché, I’ve never even *heard* of that phrase! Akimbo has been used exclusively in the phrase “arms akimbo” in my hearing. As you note, the definition is arm-oriented.

    [quote]it could be argued that it doesn’t matter that words are being used incorrectly, so long as the reader understands what the writer meant.[/quote]

    That’s the problem, I don’t know what legs akimbo means. Although, inspired by Brad K’s efforts, I can envision some sort of ballet maneuver where one does a half squat with the knees going out to the sides. Is that it? Who knows? I’m still wondering where you have read this misbegotten phrase so many times that it has in your opinion achieved cliché status.

  • Levi Montgomery

    Have to throw my wrench in on Amazing Blair’s side. I’ve never heard anyone say “legs akimbo,” nor have I ever read the phrase. Hang on whilst I google it.

    Ok, lots of hits, but if you take out all the ones for the band called Legs Akimbo and the contortionist (? – possibly a cartoon character?), there aren’t many left.

    I certainly wouldn’t call it a cliche, and if I had heard anyone use this phrase since I was eight or so, I would immediately have asked how the person who was referred to had gotten his legs on his hips.

    I do note, though, that some of the references I found were used in reference to lying down, not standing up, and were definitely references to pornography. Lying legs akimbo is somewhat easier to see than standing that way, although even then, it would have to be seen as a somewhat metaphorical phrase.

  • Vic

    I’ve read “arms akimbo,” but never “legs akimbo.” However, I like the word akimbo because, regardless of its meaning, it sounds like the name of a Sumo wrestler.

  • Simon Kewin

    Amazing Blair, Levi Montgomery and Vic,

    To be absolutely clear I suppose I should have spelled out that the term “legs akimbo” is used to mean legs wide open (standing or lying down). The central point is that “akimbo”, by definition, refers to arms, and not to legs.

    It’s certainly a phrase that has fairly common currency over here in the UK. When I say it’s a cliché, I mean that people just put the two words together and use them as a stock phrase without thinking about what they are saying. I’m not saying this is a phrase used a very great deal, but I’ve certainly heard it and read it numerous times.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  • Amazing Blair

    Simon,
    Interesting! So “legs akimbo” has wide usage in the UK. I should note that I am located in the US, specifically in the South. Perhaps we can tentatively state that the phrase is not much used in America.

    It’s also interesting that legs akimbo has developed a meaning unrelated to the original arms akimbo; in the original, the arms are certainly not spread wide but are rather bent at the elbows, thus:

    0
    /|\
    \|/
    ‘||`
    ||
    ^
    (Gotta love ASCII art — hope it turns out after I Submit it!)

  • Simon Kewin

    Amazing Blair,

    Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a phrase people use all the time over here, but it certainly does get used from time to time. Your ASCII art works very well; perhaps I should have done something similar in my original post!

  • greg

    In my youth I read some cowboy / western themed books – and I grew up in a part of Kansas where people who work horses aren’t rare. “Legs akimbo” as a phrase isn’t unknown in western genres – and if you’ve seen a bow-legged cowboy, or cowgirl, the phrase immediately makes sense.

  • Csprrr

    hmm I thought it was from Japanese hah! (based on nothing but its appearance)

    other than that i’ve never heard or read the phrase ‘legs akimbo’, but I would be rightly confused if I did!

    because

    Akimbo, amazingly, to me means something like “wielding one in the right hand and another of the same in the left” as in “akimbo pistols” … how did this happen?!

  • Legs Akimbo Band

    To learn all about Legs Akimbo, come to our show at
    This Must Be The Place 206 Main Street Lemont, IL
    Saturday – June 5th – 9:30pm

    All will become clear to you.

    Thanks :-;

  • Gertrude Himmelfarb

    Think it got its rise from “The League of Gentlemen” where Legs Akimbo is a dreadful community theatre group that has been called in to entertain people during a plague. It’s supposed to be zany and non-sensical.

  • Arthur Davis

    “The Times” (London) Sport section 27 April 2011

    Refering to Wayne Rooney in a match Manchester United v Schalke.

    “As they were back then, legs were akimbo, an opponent was left sprawling on the turf as Rooney emerged with the ball”

  • Caleb

    It sounds like arms akimbo meant on the hips. Pistols akimbo would make sense if they were holstered at the hip. As for legs akimbo, think of the knees as elbows and forget about the hips for a second. When you spread your knees wide like a bow legged cowboy, your legs make the same shape as when your elbows are out and your hands are on your hips. Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to me. Languages evolve like that, I think it’s kinda cool.

    I feel super lame posting on an old thread, but no one brought this up in a timely fashion. Maybe someone will stumble across this 🙂

  • Iconua Mathis

    Well, the only time I’ve heard the word “akimbo” is in reference to

    deep leg squatting. It’s something you’ll see children doing while

    playing in dirt. Adults tend to lose being that limber, most

    Americans anyway (just kidding). Seriously, you’ll see people in

    other countries where chairs are not a part of the decorum in deep

    squat where the back of the thigh & the whole lower e leg totally

    touch while feet are planted flat on the ground. Looks

    uncomfortable, especially when you can’t do it yourself.

  • Bob Branham

    I feel obligated to point out that the OED lists ” b. With reference to (other) limbs, esp. the legs: spread or flung out widely or haphazardly.” which has citations starting in 1833.

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