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:
1966's The Sum and Total of Now: a novel by Don Robertson:
A second time:
And a third time:
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.
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".
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".
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.