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The term was recorded first in the English language around 1400 in The Tale of Beryn: "The hoost ... set his hond in kenebowe." In the 17th century, the word was spelled on kenbow, a kenbow, a kenbol, a kenbold, or on kimbow. It may be cognate with German Kniebeuge (knee bend). The forms akembo and akimbo are found in the 18th century, with akimbo gradually becoming the standard.
One suggestion is that it comes from the Icelandic phrase í keng boginn, "bent into a crook", and it is possible that this phrase, or its close cognate in another North Germanic language, was borrowed in the meaning of hands bent to the waist.
Other suggestions trace akimbo to another Middle English word, cambok, "a curved stick or staff" (from Medieval Latin cambuca) or to a cam bow, "in a crooked bow". However, there is no extant form of akimbo spelled with cam; and the earliest form of the word, kenebowe, is a long way from cam. The bo part of the word is presumably related to bow, but no connection has ever been documented.
The Middle English Dictionary, with some noted uncertainty, proposes that akimbo might be related to Old French chane or kane "pot" or "jug" respectively, combined with Middle English boue, "bow". In that case, the word akimbo originally meant "bent like the handle of a jug"; however, there is no evidence for this, either. In Spanish, "arms akimbo" can be adequately translated as "brazos en jarra", which means "arms like a jar".
Another possible origin of the word comes from the Kongo language. The ancient "bakhimba" society of the Kongo people are the guards who supposedly watch their posts with their hands on their hips in "akimbo" pose. Additional evidence for this line of argument comes from the use of the term "bakimba" for this posture in the Black Bahamas community, and many other African-American communities. (Thompson, Robert Farris. 1988. "The Circle and the Branch": Renascent Kongo-American Art.)[dubious ]
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- "Definition of Akimbo". Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster Inc. Retrieved 23 November 2016.
- Thompson, Robert Farris. 1988. "The Circle and the Branch: Renascent Kongo-American Art".