Understanding the Idiom: "out of sorts" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
  • See Thesaurus:out of order

Feeling a bit off? Maybe you’re not quite yourself today. Perhaps you’re feeling out of sorts. This common idiom is used to describe someone who is experiencing a sense of unease or discomfort, but it’s more than just feeling physically unwell. Out of sorts can also refer to an emotional state, such as feeling irritable or moody.

The origins of this phrase are unclear, but it has been in use for centuries. It’s likely that the term originally referred to something being out of order or disorganized, which could then be applied to a person who was similarly not functioning properly.

Today, out of sorts is often used in casual conversation to describe someone who seems a bit off-kilter or not themselves. It’s important to note that this phrase should be used with care and sensitivity, as it can imply that there is something wrong with the person being described.

In the following sections, we’ll explore some common scenarios where this idiom might be used and provide examples to help you understand how it’s typically employed in everyday language. So if you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they say they’re feeling out of sorts, read on!

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “out of sorts”

The idiom “out of sorts” has been in use for centuries, but its origins are somewhat unclear. However, it is believed that the phrase originated in England during the 17th century and was used to describe a person who was feeling unwell or not quite themselves. Over time, the meaning of the phrase expanded to include someone who was feeling irritable or moody.

During the Victorian era, when many idioms were first coined, “out of sorts” became more widely used as people began to recognize its versatility in describing various states of being. It also gained popularity among writers and poets who incorporated it into their works.

As society evolved throughout the 20th century, so did our understanding and usage of this idiom. Today, we still use “out of sorts” to describe a range of feelings from physical discomfort to emotional unease.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “out of sorts”

When we are feeling a bit off, we might say that we are “out of sorts”. This idiom is used to describe a general feeling of discomfort or unease. It can be caused by physical illness, emotional stress, or simply a bad day.

While the basic meaning of the idiom remains consistent across contexts, there are variations in how it is used. For example, some people might say they feel “out of sorts” when they are experiencing mild symptoms like fatigue or headaches. Others might reserve the phrase for more serious situations, such as when they are dealing with a chronic illness.

Another variation on the idiom involves adding an adjective before “sorts” to provide more specificity about what exactly is causing the discomfort. For instance, someone who has just had an argument with their partner might say they feel “out of sorts emotionally”, while someone who has eaten too much junk food might describe themselves as feeling “out of sorts physically”.

Regardless of how it is used, the idiom “out of sorts” conveys a sense that something isn’t quite right. It’s a useful way to express feelings that don’t have an obvious cause or solution – and one that many English speakers will recognize and understand.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “out of sorts”


  • Discombobulated
  • Unsettled
  • Off-kilter
  • Not oneself
  • Distracted


  • In good spirits
  • Contented
  • Calm and collected
  • Balanced
  • Composed

Cultural Insights:

The phrase “out of sorts” is commonly used in English-speaking countries to describe a feeling of being unwell or not quite right. It can refer to physical discomfort or emotional unease.

In some cultures, expressing negative emotions is seen as taboo or inappropriate. As such, people may use idioms like “out of sorts” instead of directly stating how they feel.

It’s also worth noting that different regions may have their own unique idioms with similar meanings. For example, in Australia, someone might say they are feeling “crook” instead of “out of sorts.”

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “out of sorts”

Exercise 1: Identifying Emotions

In this exercise, you will practice identifying emotions that are similar to feeling “out of sorts”. Look at a list of emotions and try to identify which ones are most similar in meaning to “out of sorts”. Write down your answers and discuss them with a partner.

List of Emotions:

  • Frustrated
  • Anxious
  • Irritated
  • Sad
  • Overwhelmed
  • Bored
  • Tired
  • Confused
  • Stressed out
  • Disappointed

Exercise 2: Using the Idiom in Context

In this exercise, you will practice using the idiom “out of sorts” in context. Choose one or more situations from the list below and write a short paragraph describing how you might feel if you were “out of sorts” in that situation. Be sure to use the idiom correctly!

Situation Options:

  1. You have not slept well for several nights.
  2. If I were out of sorts because I haven’t slept well for several nights, I would feel irritable and easily agitated.

  3. You have just received some bad news about a loved one’s health.
  4. If I were out of sorts because I just received some bad news about a loved one’s health, I would feel sad and anxious.

  5. You are running late for an important meeting at work.
  6. If I were out of sorts because I am running late for an important meeting at work, I would feel stressed and overwhelmed.

  7. You have been working on a difficult project for several hours without a break.
  8. If I were out of sorts because I have been working on a difficult project for several hours without a break, I would feel tired and frustrated.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “out of sorts”

When using idioms, it’s important to use them correctly in order to avoid confusion or misunderstandings. The idiom “out of sorts” is no exception. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when using this phrase:

  • Using it too broadly: While “out of sorts” can be used to describe a general feeling of unease or discomfort, it should not be used for every negative emotion. It specifically refers to feeling unwell or off-balance.
  • Misusing the word “sorts”: The word “sorts” in this context refers to one’s physical and mental state, not a specific type of thing. Therefore, saying someone is “out of their sorts” doesn’t make sense.
  • Confusing it with other idioms: There are many idioms that refer to feeling unwell or upset, such as “under the weather” or “down in the dumps”. Make sure you’re using the correct idiom for your intended meaning.
  • Forgetting its origins: The phrase “out of sorts” comes from an old printing term where individual letters were sorted into compartments called “sorts”. If they were out of order, it made printing difficult. Remembering this origin can help you understand and use the idiom more effectively.

By avoiding these common mistakes and using the idiom correctly, you can better communicate your thoughts and feelings with others.

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