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

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.”

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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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Apr 17, 2014

@literally45-- Topsy turvy was used in a literary piece by Richard Eden in 1555. I don't know if this is the oldest mention of the phrase in literature, but it might be.

Some people think that "head over heels" or "heads over heels" is similar to topsy turvy because it also talks about something that's not usual. But topsy turvy makes more sense. Head over heels is confusing because our head is over our heels. I think that this phrase was actually "heels over head" at first and somehow turned into head over heels. But the meaning of it today is different, it's usually used to describe someone in love.

Topsy turvy is much more straightforward and easy to understand. Upside down is another similar, straightforward phrase.

By literally45 — On Apr 17, 2014

What is the oldest recording of this phrase in a literary work? I found one from the 1800s, but I think there must be older ones.

By SarahGen — On Apr 17, 2014

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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