If you have rickets your skeleton could be said to be rickety, perhaps. I wonder whether "rickets" comes from "rickety" or vice versa.

The Merriam Webster entry for rickety says only:

1 : affected with rickets
2  a: lacking stability or firmness: SHAKY sense 2a
    // a rickety coalition
    b: in unsound physical condition
    // rickety veterans
    // rickety stairs

But in the ordering of the senses there is hint, at the very least, that "rickety" first meant afflicted with rickets. If so I guess it parallels "lousy" which originally meant afflicted with lice.

The same site defines "rickets" like this:

"Definition of rickets

: a deficiency disease that affects the young during the period of skeletal growth, is characterized especially by soft and deformed bones, and is caused by failure to assimilate and use calcium and phosphorus normally due to inadequate sunlight or vitamin D" and the entry says nothing about the word "rickety".

From the site BMJ Journals:

The discovery of this new disease, rickets, in the middle of the 17th century was probably due to the increasing urbanisation taking place at the time, as well as to misguided practices in infant feeding. Within a very short time early obstetricians like Willughby in England and van Deventer in Holland were describing the problems of delivering infants through women’s rickety pelvises. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Chamberlen family also introduced the forceps into their practice at this time and that in the 17th century man midwives increasingly invaded the previously jealously guarded female province of childbirth.


2 Answers 2


OED says rickety is definitely derived from the disease.

Origin: Formed within English, by derivation. Etymons: English ricket, rickets n., -y suffix.
Etymology: < ricket, variant (in compounds and derivatives) of rickets n. + -y suffix. Compare ricketed adj., ricketly adj., ricketing adj., ricketish adj.

Rickety ("affected by or suffering from rickets") has its earliest citation from 1650. Its figurative use ("as if affected by rickets") is from 1652/3 but marked obsolete. The current usage ("unstable, dilapidated, ramshackle") dates from 1741.

Interestingly, they separate "Of material things, esp. wooden structures or furniture: unstable; dilapidated, ramshackle" from "Of ideas, the mind, etc.: unsound, lacking rigour," the latter being first cited from 1738.


The Webster entries for 'rickets' and 'rickety' state first known uses of 1634 and 1673, respectively.

However, that's just in the sense of having the disease. No first known uses are given for the other meanings of 'rickety'.

Etymonline lists slightly broader dates, but still gives an earlier date for 'rickets'. Again, in regards to the medical sense of the adjective.

"liable to collapse or come clattering down," 1680s, with + -y (2) + rickets, via the notion of "weak, unhealthy, feeble in the joints." The literal sense is from c. 1720 but never was common in English. Of material things, from 1799.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.