In Limbo

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In Limbo : Phrases


In a state of being neglected and immobile, with no prospect of movement to a better place.



Limbo is now most often associated with the form of party dance, in which dancers bend backwards and shuffle under a horizontal stick without touching it. This originated in the West Indies around the 1950s and became something of a fad in the 1960s. The craze was created, or the uncharitable might say, cashed in on, by Chubby Checker, who released the single Limbo Rock and the album Limbo Party in 1962. The adjective limber has been in use in English since the 16th century, with the meaning 'pliant and supple; easily bent'. There's no definitive documented link between limber and limbo, but it seems very probable that they are actually versions of the same word.

People had been in limbo well before the 1950s, of course. Limbo was originally a place rather than a dance. Mediaeval Christian belief had it that only those who were baptized into the Christian Church could enter Heaven. Theologists, especially those of the Roman Catholic persuasion, were much exercised by the fate of those who, while not being sinners to be condemned to Hell, were unbaptized through no fault of their own. In particular, babies who died in childbirth or those who died before the time of Christ, would have had no choice but to remain unbaptized. By the 14th century, the incongruity was avoided via the concept of Limbo, the abode of righteous souls who weren't destined for either Heaven or Hell. Two of the forms of Limbo were Limbo Infantum (Limbo of the Infants) and Limbo Patrum (Limbo of the Adults).

Thus, Limbo was on the border, not in Hell, but not in Heaven either, and 'in limbo' later came to take on the metaphorical meaning - 'in prison'. Shakespeare used this in Henry VIII, 1613:

I have some of 'em in Limbo Patrum, and there they are like to dance these three days.

Soon after that, the meaning was extended to our current usage, which refers to any situation where someone or something is confined and neglected, with nowhere to go. This was alluded to in The English Moor, a comic play by Richard Brome, 1659:

The only sute you wear smells of the chest
That holds in Limbo lavendar all you rest.

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