Sort and Out of Sorts

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders if the phrase “out of sorts” might be worth a post. I think it is.

The OED has four separate entries for sort as a noun.

The first entry, marked “obsolete,” defines sort as “the fate or lot of a particular person or persons.” The word was borrowed from French, but it derives from a Latin verb meaning “to cast lots.” One’s sort was one’s destiny or fate. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims draw straws to see who will tell the first tale. The knight wins the draw:

“[whether] by aventure [happenstance], or sort [fate], or cas [accident], the truth is this: the cut fell to the knight.”

A related word is sortilege:

1. The practice of casting lots in order to decide something or to forecast the future; divination based on this procedure or performed in some other way; sorcery, magic, witchcraft. 2. An act or instance of divining, choosing, or deciding by the drawing or casting of lots.

A second meaning of sort is “a measure of weight for figs and raisins,” not a use likely to be encountered even by a lover of early English texts.

Computing has coined a new use for sort as a noun: “the action of arranging items of data in a prescribed sequence.” For example, “We decided to remove the umlauts before performing the sort.”

The most usual modern use of the noun sort is in the sense of “a kind, species, or variety.”

The meaning of sort as a noun has evolved from “what is allotted to one by fate” to such concepts as condition, rank, class, order, category, and variety.

The expression “out of sorts” to mean “not in normal condition” or “irritable or peevish” appears frequently in the context of sports and celebrity-watching:

The rehearsal went on for nearly seven hours, and the soloists were tired, hungry, and out of sorts.

Madonna appears out of sorts as she leaves a Kabbala Centre with daughter Lourdes and sons Rocco and David in New York City on Friday.

Beyoncé looked a little out of sorts on Monday night as she watched the basketball game with husband Jay Z.

Rory McIlroy seemed a bit out of sorts in the third round of the Barclays.
Harrison Ford has a new movie on the way so he’s out on the promotional trail—but it would seem he was a bit out of sorts when he was interviewed by Conan O’Brien.

As tends to happen with idioms, “out of sorts” is sometimes misused by writers unfamiliar with its meaning, as in this sentence about the running scene in Forrest Gump from an entertainment site called Cinemablend:

Actually considering the CGI that the film used, and what it must have cost in the mid-1990s, it seems a little out of sorts that the studio would be bent out of shape over the running scene.

The writer seems to be using “out of sorts” to mean unusual.

The phrase “out of sorts” means, “not in the normal condition of good health,” or “in a low-spirited, irritable, or peevish state.”

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2 Responses to “Sort and Out of Sorts”

  • Lois F. Madsen

    Your explanation of the phrase “out of sorts”
    reminds me that I heard a young government staff member in a television interview to assert that she and her colleagues use the phrase “out of pocket” to mean “out of the office.” Your thoughts?

  • Maeve

    Lois,
    To me, “out of pocket” means “at personal expense.” I write about the “out of office” meaning here: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/out-of-pocket-and-singing-in-tune/

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