We pulled up behind a late-model car with the vanity license plate, KILTER. The car was shiny and beautiful, giving me the impression its owner was orderly, prosperous, and “with it.” I had never seen the word “kilter” before, by itself without “off-” in front of it, but it instantly made me think of “off-kilter,” a term I heard a lot growing up, as in when something was supposed to be straight but wasn’t.

There’s a fair amount of evidence that I’ve been a bit off-kilter most, if not all, of my life. I have almost always had a special interest in words, but not in the disciplined way of a linguist. In fact, any linguist who reads this post will likely be either enraged or deeply sympathetic at the ultra-amateurish way I have constructed this story.

Adding to the off-kilter feeling that any reader may get from reading this undisciplined line of illogical reasoning, I lay the blame for all of this largely on the KILTER vanity plate. Here goes.

Is there such a series of words as kilt, kilter, and kiltest that follows our familiar use of the words good, better, and best? I suspect not. Most of us have experienced the hodgepodge of the English language, made up as it is of words from so many other languages.

Most of us know what a kilt is, that unusual men’s skirt made famous by Scottish Highlanders centuries ago, a garment they believed gave them greater freedom of movement in battle. There are accounts of deep fear in the hearts of opposing forces when the eerie sound of bagpipes preceded a stampede of Highlanders charging at the top of their lungs in their flying kilts. On a 2004 trip to Scotland, I had a chance to put on a formal kilt and accessories, an outfit whose owner wore it to weddings and other festive events.

Yours truly in a kilt and related formal attire, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2004.

Yours truly in a kilt and related formal attire, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2004.

After consulting some online dictionaries and other sources, I have found out some things that are completely new to me. “Kilter” means something that is in order, in good condition, or working properly. These meanings seem to fit the instant impression I formed of the guy who was driving the car with the KILTER license plate. Aha! If “off-kilter” means something is askew or out of alignment, it makes perfect sense that “kilter” would mean just the opposite—something in tune, something that’s shipshape.

Searching “kiltest” revealed something quite unexpected. It turns out that Kiltest is a town or rural area, referred to as Kiltest Townland, in or near Londonderry, Northern Ireland. I wonder if the namers of Kiltest made a leap of logic by suggesting that their part of the world was even better than shipshape, a truly superior place. I’ll have to ask our neighbor Paul Johnston, a native of Northern Ireland, if he can shed any light on Kiltest.

Anyway, all this grew from pulling up behind a nice car with KILTER on the license plate. Is it common for people to see something so innocuous and then dwell on it occasionally for months, seeking some kind of meaning whether it’s really there or not?

As I said, it’s possible that I’m just off-kilter.

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