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The meaning and origin of the expression: Topsy-turvy

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Topsy-turvy

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Topsy-turvy'?

'Topsy-turvy' means in disorder; with the top where the bottom should be.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Topsy-turvy'?

Topsy-turvy'Topsy-turvy', as with similar phrases like 'upside-down', refers to the top and bottom being interchanged from their usual places. 'Topsy' is clearly an allusion to 'top'.

'Turvy' isn't so easy to interpret. The numerous variant spellings in early citations, which include tervy, tirvy, turvy, turvie etc., don't offer much in the way of a clue as to the meaning of the word. It may be an adaptation of the medieval verb 'tirve', meaning 'to turn or to topple over'. It has also been suggested that 'turvy' is an allusion to 'turf' and that 'topsy-turvy' means 'with one's head on the turf'. That's possible, but none of the early citations of the phrase make any such allusion.

The phrase appears to be a variant of the older expression 'top-over-terve', which meant 'topple-over'. This is first recorded in The Brut, or The chronicles of England, 1450:

Our stakez made hem top ouyr terve

The term has been recorded since at least the 16th century, for example, this piece from Richard Eden's The decades of the newe worlde, 1555:

"They say that... they see the houses turne topsy turuye, and men to walke with theyr heeles vpwarde."

Turvy-topsyMike Leigh chose Topsy-Turvy as the title of his 1999 film about the Victorian lyricist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. The film explores the rapid reversal in the pair's fortunes after they produced The Mikado and alludes to the topsy-turvy worlds they created in their operettas.

Rather neatly, the film's publicity poster works either way up, with the two reversed images resembling the lead characters.