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What are the Origins of the Phrase "Topsy Turvy"?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 April 2014
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The term “topsy turvy” to describe a situation of disorder or confusion has been used since 1530, and it actually has quite mundane origins, despite sounding peculiar to modern ears. Simply put, “turvy” is a corruption of terve, a Middle English word which means “to overturn,” so the phrase was probably originally something along the lines of “top turvy,” and the extra “-sy” was added through reduplication, a linguistics phenomenon in which sounds are repeated for emphasis.

Originally, this phrase was probably meant to be used simply to describe something which was upside down. Over time, it began to be used to refer chaotic, confused, or disordered situations, in which people may feel like they are upside down due to their confusion. Today, the term can be used both to refer to a physical state of being upside down, as in “the cat is all topsy turvy on the carpet,” or a state of chaos, like “things are topsy turvy backstage.”

Making sense of a topsy turvy situation can take some skill, and sometimes it helps to distance onself from the situation, as it is easier to see what is going on from a distance. Some people actually thrive in such environments, either ignoring the chaos or working to mitigate it. The ability to cope with chaotic or confusing situations can actually be a character asset in many industries, although it is usually described as “thinking on your feet” or “multitasking.”

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In lieu of describing something as topsy turvy, people can also say that it is chaotic, confused, jumbled, messy, disordered, or inverted, depending on company and personal taste. As a general rule, this term is used colloquially in spoken English, and it does not appear in formal written English.

Reduplication, such as that found in phrases like “topsy turvy,” is very common in slang in many languages, not just English. Typically it involves repeating part of a word to create a rhythmic or rhyming phrase, often turning the phrase into nonsense in the literal sense, although it makes sense in context. Some other examples of reduplication include: hanky panky, hob nob, helter skelter, nitty gritty, and willy nilly. The use of silly rhyming phrases may be as much about indulging in wordplay as it is about creating distinctive slang which is also easy to say.

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Discuss this Article

SarahGen
Post 2

I think this phrase is rare and important in the sense that despite being very old, it's still very much in use today.

Usually very old phrases are either no longer used in modern language, or change meaning to mean something else. But "topsy turvy" is still used frequently and the meaning remains the same. I think that's quite an accomplishment and is a sign that society has really internalized this phrase.

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