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The origin of the popular saying out of sorts is still unclear, but the more common theory states that the expression comes from the world of printing where “sorts” was used to refer to boxes of individual letters used by printers in their printing trays.

This theory is challenged by the fact that, apparently, the saying was present in The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood published in 1562, well before sorts, in the printing sense, was used as suggested by The Phrase Finder:

The first known use of the word 'sorts' in this context dates from 1668, and the word is nicely defined in Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-works - Printing, 1683:

  • "The letters that lye in every box of the case are separately called sorts in printers and founders language; thus a is a sort, b is a sort, c is a sort, etc."

Can anyone provide evidence of the entry directly from Heywood’s Proverbs of the citation relative to “out of sorts”?

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3 Answers 3

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Here’s an 1867 reprint of the 1562 original A dialogue conteinying the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. Better known as proverbs:

The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood (A. D. 1562)
Publication date: 1867
Published by the Spenser society [by C. Simms and co.]
Book from the collections of Harvard University
Reprinted from the original (1562) ed. and collated with the 2d (1566) ed. with an appendix of variations.

Out of sorts does not appear here.

Use the arrows in the lower right to page. Use the magnifying glass in the upper left to search.

Be sure to use f for s and search fortf or fort or "out of" (or even "out of sorts" if it eases your mind).

The misattribution of that phrase to the 1562 original is triggered by a 1906 reprint that includes an “index, note-book, and word-list”:

The proverbs, epigrams, and miscellanies of John Heywood, comprising A dia’ogue of the effectual proverbs in the English tongue concerning marriages - First hundred epigrams - Three hundred epigrams on three hundred proverbs - The fifth hundred epigrams - A sixth hundred epigrams - Miscellanies - Ballads - Note-book and word-lists

In the index, the editor defines the word fit, as appears within on the “third quarter” of page 55:

And from post to pillar, wife, I have been tossed
By that surfeit. And I feel a little fit
Even now, by former attempting of it.
Whereby, except I shall seem to leave my wit
Before it leave me, I must now leave it.

In the index, on page 368, fit is defined as meaning out of sorts:

Fit, (a) “by that surfeit ... I feel a little fit” (55c), disordered, out of sorts

So to answer your questions, no, it is not in there, and therefore no, no one can provide evidence that it is.

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Yes, it's found in The proverbs, epigrams, and miscellanies of John Heywood (page 368). No, not the edition that was published 1562. It's from 1906, from the "word-list" section that defines Heywood's terms. (He did once write "I feel a little fit".) If you look at the section carefully you'll see other citations like "Barclay, Ship of Fools (1509), i. 76 (1874)" (that is, a 1874 republication of an older work, found under "stable door"), which means it can't have been Heywood who wrote it.

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  • Dear OP, Since comments are locked on your question, I'll ask for clarification here: Are you asking only for a source for “out of sorts” in The Proverbs of John Heywood (and not for any analysis about the origins of out of sorts)? Feb 20, 2023 at 4:43
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    @TinfoilHat - yes, I am looking for evidence that “out of sorts” was cited in the 1562 edition of The Proverbs of John Heywood.
    – user 66974
    Feb 20, 2023 at 7:26
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This challenges the idea that the popular saying out of sorts came from printing/typography.

It seems to me that “sorts” in the typography sense, cannot provide a source for “out of sorts” = ill.

This from OED.

13 b. Typography. One or other of the characters or letters in a fount of type. Usually in plural.

1668–9 in Cent. Typogr. Univ. Press, Oxford (1900) 156 Then you will perceiue what sorts your worke runns most vpon and so you must cast ouer such sorts.

1683 J. Moxon Mech. Exercises II. Dict. 391 The Letters..in every Box of the Case are..called Sorts in Printers and Founders Language; Thus a is a Sort, b is a Sort.

1784 B. Franklin in J. Bigelow Life B. Franklin (1881) III. 256 The founts, too, must be very scanty, or strangely out of sorts.

Note there is no note of the suggested box being a "sort" in the OP's

the expression comes from the world of printing where “sorts” was used to refer to boxes of individual letters.

We see that “sort” is a synonym of “letter”, not “box of letters.”

NB: The founts, too, must be very scanty, or strangely out of sorts – the writer is noting that there were not many letters and fonts.

Thus this “out of” is exactly the same as “We’re out of coffee,” i.e. “without”, not “outside of” that “out of sorts” suggests.

The next entry seems relevant:

14. out of sorts:

a. Not in the usual or normal condition of good health or spirits; in a low-spirited, irritable, or peevish state, esp. through physical discomfort; slightly unwell.

1621 S. Ward Life of Faith vii. 48 I wonder..to see one..that knowes all must worke for the best, to bee at any time out of tune or out of sorts.

This is followed by the literal sense:

14.b. In literal sense: Out of or without certain kinds of articles or goods. Also transferred.

1670 J. Ray Coll. Eng. Prov. 225 Many a man..coming home from far voyages, may chance to land here, and being out of sorts, is unable for the present time..to recruit himself with clothes.

The link between 14a and 14b is easy to find, the subject is in a poor condition.

But … a difficulty is that the “health/figurative” sense is recorded before the literal version.

I don’t think that this is particularly important given the relatively small amount of literature and the relative infrequency of such a phrase: the two were probably around together somewhat earlier.

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