Hissy fit

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I am fond of this expression and have often wondered how it arose.  In my own mind, I have always associated it with the hissing of a cat and hysteria, but never took the time to try to figure out where it really came from.  Today someone directly asked me about the origins of this quaint expression and proposed a novel solution, which I will present at the end of this post.  First, however, let's look at current surmises concerning the problem.

English Language & Usage Stack Exchange has a valuable discussion here:

Since, during the course of the last four years, Stack Exchange seems to have covered most of the bases, I'll copy the proposed answers here.

The OED included hissy fit in their entry for hissy, writing:

hissy fit n. chiefly U.S. a fit of temper, an angry outburst, a tantrum.

1967 in Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. (1991) II. 1021/2 Pitched a hissy-fit.

1978 A. Maupin Tales of City 5 When I told my mom I was moving to San Francisco, she had an absolute hissy-fit!

1981 F. Flagg Coming Attractions 21 Momma always looks like she is on the verge of a hissy fit, but that's mainly because when she was eighteen, she stuck her head in a gas oven looking at some biscuits and blew her eyebrows off.

1999 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 22 Nov. 24/8 Elton John threw a hissy fit at Winnipeg Airport, Canada, after customs officers took almost two hours to clear his five-person entourage.

The 1967 usage is the first recorded usage that they give, so the phrase is relatively new. They suggest that this use of hissy is tied to hysterics, and they add:

Also 19– hissie, hussy, huzzy.

U.S. [Perhaps influenced by hysteric n.] = hissy fit n. at Additions.

1934 Amer. Speech 9 71 Hissy is probably provincial slang. I have heard it for eight or ten years. He threw a hissy or He had a hissy means that a person in question was very disturbed and very angry.

1949 Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc.xi. 7 She had a hissy when I told her she couldn't go.

1973 N.Y. Times 13 July 25, I wasn't all that keen about him riding bulls, but he could do a good job so I never throwed a hissy about it.

1992 C. McCarthy All Pretty Horses (1993) i. 72 Rawlins will pitch a pure hissy when he sees you, he said.

It seems possible that hissy came first–someone would go into hysterics and throw a tantrum if they didn't get their way. This eventually changed to become a hissy fit, or a "fit of hysterics". Note that there isn't a firm indication of origins, but this is the theory presented by the OED.


There's only snippets so it's not possible to verify, but Google Books has some earlier references than the OED's 1967.

1943's The Business of Getting Well by Marshall Sprague:

Cora, the cleaning woman, told me that he has "a reg'lar oF hissy-fit" whenever she tries to sweep under his furniture. It seems that, back in the night club, sweeping under the furniture was bad form. A fellow never knew whom he'd find …

1959's The Numbers of Our Days: a novel by Francis Irby Gwaltney:

I put it off once because of you, and the lawyers almost had a hissy fit. I decided I'd better go so I could get back for Christmas." Tom glowered in the darkness. "I hope you have a good time at all those parties they give at the ...

1966's The Sum and Total of Now: a novel by Don Robertson:

Jasper Reed, the Hillbilly boy, called them Hissy Fits,

A second time:

Was oxygen any good to counteract a Hissy Fit?

And a third time:

He figured she would sure as anything have a hissy fit if he went down to Paradise Falls


Here's a possible origin:

The allusion in this expression may be to the hissing and spluttering of such an outburst, or it may simply be a contraction of "hysterical".


It would be worth seeing whether the expression originates in the Scandinavian Midwest. See Einar Haugen's Norwegian English Dictionary under "hissig" (the g at the end of the word is silent):

1 ardent, eager, keen… 2 angry, irascible, quick-tempered: bli h- lose one's temper, (pop.) fly off the handle. 3 intense, violent (e.g. discussion, battle). 4 inflamed, irritated (e.g. boil).


Hissy fit could come from Hysterical, where hysteria was associated with women who had a hysterectomy and any fits of 'craziness' (for lack of a better term) were attributed to to the hysterectomy. Hence hissy fit and hence its association with women. (sourced from an undisclosed episode of QI, BBC.co.uk)


More likely that hysterical was simply associated with hysteric, having a womb. (The OED has 'hysteric' as meaning both 'relating to the womb' and 'hysterical'). All good mediaeval/early modern doctors (all men) knew that only women get hysterical…


The general consensus both here and on the Internet at large is that "nobody knows" the origin for certain, but wisegeek.com presents a good summary of the three main theories…

  • Allusion to how cats (and catty women) react when angry – hissing, baring claws, etc.
  • Shortened from hysterical – deriving from or affected by uncontrolled extreme emotion.
  • Shortened from histrionics – exaggerated dramatic behavior designed to attract attention.

Most likely one of those really did occur first, and thus could be said to be the "original". But I think for a term like this to gain and retain currency it probably gets some input from all three on an ongoing basis. Personally, I put more weight on histrionics. It's the least common term – but to those familiar with it, the "attention-seeking" connotations should seem particularly apposite.


And perhaps also an allusion to the hissing fit of geese. And there's plenty of examples of hysterical fit.


Could be so. I also found this from "Men are so ardent" (Gerald Kersh, 1936)Something terrible seemed to surge up in Paula — some hissing outburst of pent-up emotional energy


The expression comes from the actions of a cat when it is suddenly upset—it shows its anger by hissing and swatting, and baring its teeth.


WHen I was about ten (i.e. about 1970) I used this expression. My father took me aside and explained that it was not a proper one to use in polite company, as the "hissing" referred to is actually the sound produced by involuntary voiding of liquified bowel contents and urine. In other words, the person throwing the fit has become so distraught as to cause his body to produce this instinctive response. I have not seen this explanation anywhere else, but it is the one I received.

I have omitted one purely speculative proposal that strains to link "hissy fit" with Hessian mercenaries hired by the British during the American Revolution.

But the next, and last (11/9/15), answer on Stack Exchange is quite novel:

In the course of my kanji studies, I just came across the Japanese word 必死, which would be written in roumaji (that is, romanized alphabet) as "hisshi" or "hissi" (though the actual Japanese word is pronounced more like "he-she," with a short pause on the "sh" sound). It means 'frantic, desperate' and can also mean 'certain death.' I was curious if it made its way into English language usage as the word "hissy" courtesy of US military involvement with Japan or something, as have a few other words have done, which is what just led me here. Looks like the jury's still out on this word, though.

So we have a proposal for a Japanese origin of the expression.  This leads me to the question that prompted me to write this post in the first place.

Alan Chin mentions the Toishanese and Cantonese term hei2si5 起市 (in MSM that would be qǐshì; so far as I know, this expression has not yet been borrowed into Mandarin) meaning "high-priced' arrogant".

Alan remarks:

hei2si5 起市 sounds almost the same as and means almost the same as the English word "hissy" as in "hissy fit" — is one a loan word of the other, and if so, in which direction? Or is this just coincidence?

It's curious that the last two proposals for the origin of "hissy" have come from East Asia.  Whether or not they pan out, this shows the increasing connectedness of language East and West — at least in people's minds.

After I had finished writing the above paragraphs, I came upon this article by William Safire:

"On Language;Hissy Fits and Golden Oldies" (3/24/96)

Safire quotes Senator Orrin Hatch using the expression and opining that it "probably surfaced in the Appalachians".

Safire comments:

The Senator bottomed his opinion about the phrase's Appalachian origin on a citation in the Dictionary of American Regional English, which spotted it in a 1934 issue of American Speech: "Hissy is probably provincial slang. I have heard it for 8 or 10 years. He threw a hissy . . . means that the person in question was very disturbed and very angry." DARE speculated that it came from a hypocoristic, or pet-name, form of hysterical, or may be from the echoic hiss. My guess is that the association with fit suggests hysteria.

Pushing "hissy" in this sense back to 1934 makes it less likely that it has anything to do with Japanese or Cantonese, unless, as Alan suggests, it may have been borrowed from English into Cantonese.


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

    NB that the OED cites give only examples where the fit is being pitched/thrown by a woman or stereotypically gay man, but some of the other examples are not nearly so limited and it doesn't sound (although maybe the quote is missing context) like the 1934 ur-reference thinks the phrase has an "acting stereotypically female or effeminate" subtext. One possible argument for the "echoic hiss" theory is the similarity of "hissy fit" to the idiom "to be spittin' mad," with hissing and spitting being different characterizations of the same basic physiological phenomenon (see also "frothing at the mouth").

  2. Y said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    From America's Textile Reporter, 7/15/1920: "What happened regularly in any year when we had bad weather and a backward season prior to the war has happened in the spring of 1920, and we all proceed to throw a hysterical fit."

  3. Keith said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

    How about it being a bowdlerised form of "pissing fit", linked to the expression "pissed off"?

  4. CuConnacht said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 3:17 pm

    I imagine that what Cora, the cleaning woman threw c. 1943 was a reg'lar ol' hissy-fit, not a reg'lar oF hissy-fit.

  5. Rsteinmetz70112 said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

    Having grown up in West Virginia I never thought of the origins of the phrase. It was always just there. I clearly recall my grandmother and mother using the phase. I suppose that supports the Appalachian origins. I can't recall when I first heard it but it was well before I moved further south in the mid 1960's.

  6. Joanna said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    Interesting; I hadn't realised it was an issue but just assumed that "hissy" was derived from hysterical.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 4:42 pm

    As to bowdlerization, we have "pissy" in the approximate sense of "petulant" but that suggests, at least in my idiolect, a much milder degree of emotional outburst than "hissy fit" does. And if there really were a connection it would seem a bit odd for the minced form to be stronger than the unminced.

  8. Laura Morland said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 4:59 pm

    As a Southerner who moved to California at age 20, I've always assumed it was a Southern expression. It was quite common growing up in Central Florida, but I don't recall hearing it said out here on the Left Coast.

    P.S. I rather doubt the "pissing fit" suggestion. I just googled "pissing fit" and was rewarded by a wash of porn sites.

  9. Laura Morland said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    Wait — Orrin Hatch is an amateur linguist? How about that.

  10. Bloix said,

    February 17, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    Google books tells me:

    A tantalizing link to a 1902 issue of a magazine called "The Railroad Trainman," Vol. 19, issue 2, p. 790, appears to contain the sentence, in a short story, "[Don't get] hissy w' her!" But all that can be seen the image of the book itself is the "snippet view" which doesn't contain the sentence.

    An 1884 book (periodical?) called Johnsoniana (G.Bell & Sons) contains the sentence, "'He endeavored to raise a hissy among you,' says he, 'but without effect I believe.'"

  11. Christian Johnson said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 12:03 am

    But it it's old *and* from the Western US, might it not be from Cantonese, given the origins of thousands of railroad workers?

  12. ryanwc said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 2:43 am

    I find it interesting that the OED examples include two women and Elton John having hissy fits. That would be in keeping with my midwestern childhood, when hissy fit had a sexist/homophobic undertone. It was most commonly said between boys – "don't have a hissy fit" meaning something like don't be a wussy/don't overreact like a girl would.

    I acknowledge Brewster's point that the other examples don't to bear this out. But I don't know what to make of the Don Robertson citations. He seems like a writer who just heard a new bit of local color and wanted to make darn sure he used it. I don't trust his ear. So I really only count two counterexamples.

    It's possible that this was a later imposition on a phrase with broader relevance in different times and places. In particular, I can see where the term, once it gained currency, was attracted to sissy, wussy and the rhyming p-word that seems to vulgar to type.

  13. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 7:09 am

    Additional datum: from a book review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer July 31, 1966, reviewing "The One-Eyed Man" by Larry King (apparently not *that* Larry King, but the other one). The reviewer writes "This is not to say that The One-Eyed Man is a great book. Far from it. King would probably have a genuine Texas hissy fit if anyone were to suggest such a thing."

  14. Christopher Henrich said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    How about the German word "hitzig," meaning "heated" according to one online translating dictionary? An online German dictionary gives several definitions which suggest that the word can connote emotionalism or sexuality, so the subtexts that ryanwc mentions could be present.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    February 18, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    My initial reaction was surprise to it given as an American word, and even as a regional one that some southerners feel the need to explain; to me it is a normal word in British English, if informal. If it was brought over at the end of the last century (perhaps by newspapers ticking off celebrities), it was thoroughly naturalised from the start.

    It also seems to be so naturalised down under that they think they invented the short form:
    'Hypocoristics in New Zealand and Australian English'
    "Examples shared with Australia include /hissy/ 'hysterical fit'"

  16. michael said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 1:24 am

    Why is the hissy-fit (or any other kind of fit) "pitched" or "thrown"?

  17. michael farris said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 5:41 am

    "My initial reaction was surprise to it given as an American word, and even as a regional one that some southerners feel the need to explain; to me it is a normal word in British English"

    I remember a couple of times using it with British people in the late 90's to early 00's and they didn't understand it. I think I've heard it from some British people since but can't remember the circumstances.

  18. George said,

    February 19, 2016 @ 10:07 am

    Perfectly normal in Ireland too, although I won't put forward any theory as to how long it has been. It certainly doesn't strike me as particularly recent (i.e. post-'90s) but we all know how unreliable these subjective impressions can be.

  19. Max said,

    February 20, 2016 @ 12:51 am

    "… hysteria was associated with women who had a hysterectomy and any fits of 'craziness' (for lack of a better term) were attributed to to the hysterectomy."

    This seems backwards. Hysteria was thought to be caused by the womb – hystericus being Latin for womb – or disturbances thereof. A hysterectomy would, by this theory, cure the "craziness," not cause it.

  20. stephen said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    I have an anecdote. I get unpaid lunch breaks at work, I clock out for lunch, but sometimes my lunch break at work gets interrupted, and I have to watch the front when the manager receives deliveries, so…I'm not supposed to clock in and out repeatedly, 3-4 times in half an hour. "Upper management would have kittens" if I did that. I liked that turn of phrase.

    And how old is the phrase, "clock out"? Is it exactly as old as "clock in"?

  21. Bloix said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

    Stephen – if you are required to watch the front during your legally required unpaid lunch period, you are a victim of wage theft. Of course management would have kittens if you clocked in and out – you would be documenting their commission of a crime. Think about keeping a diary of dates and times in the event you ever want to make a clam.

  22. Bloix said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    ps- the example I found in a book printed in 1884 is actually from the 1775 diary of Dr Thomas Campbell, an Irish clergyman. The diary of Campbell's visit to England is well-known, apparently, because it records his conversations with Dr Johnson. As an Irishman in 1775 was using "hissy" to mean a ruckus, it's not likely the origin is from the American west.

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