On Sunday, I attended my fifty-fourth high school reunion (more about this on Sunday next), and a few of us from the classes of 1962 and 1963 were reminiscing about our old Latin, English, German teacher, Mr. Brunelle, who had a bit of a temper. I used the expression flying off the handle, and, later, thinking about that expression, I realized I wasn't quite sure where it came from.
The sources I checked all agreed: It refers to the head of an ax soaring away from the handle, an event I actually experienced back in the day when we had a wood-burning stove in our living room. Scary.
One of the first reference books I acquired as a young teacher was Why You Say It by Webb B. Garrison, 1955, an old orange paperback that I still consult now and again. Here's the entry for flying off the handle:
American pioneers had so few tools that they valued each highly. But apart from the rifle a frontiersman treasured his ax more than any other device he owned.
There were few blacksmiths on the margin of civilization, and most axes were shipped in from the East, where they were made by hand. Machine-made handles were unknown; each woodsman whittled his own from oak, hickory, or gum. Crudely fitted to the stock, a poorly balanced ax was hard to use. It had a way of working loose. Then, at the precise moment its owner made a particularly hard swing, it was likely to fly off the handle and into the underbrush.
Few occurrences were more vexatious. It is easy to picture an angry axman throwing down the handle, recalling his most vigorous profanity, and indulging in a grand display of rage. Such fits of anger were so commonly associated with the loss of an ax that a person showing such rage from any cause was said to fly off the handle (24-25).
Well, this is entertaining--a bit speculative--but probably generally accurate, as well. The earliest reference in the OED, by the way, is from 1832--a Cincinnati newspaper!
I got on a query on a recent post about the expression highfalutin'. Here it is ...
A quick question about the word "highfalutin:" could it be that rarely used words change meaning less often than commonly used words? I am thinking of words of my generation... Wicked, sick, nice, and savage. These words, undergoing semantic change, now remind us of how great something is rather than how negative it is.
Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?
And it made me think, too, of words that live, then die, even within our own lifetimes--like (in mine) rabbit ears (to refer to a TV-top antenna), filmstrip projector (a device for showing ... filmstrips), and on and on. Most, of course, are related to technology, which, as we know, is now changing so rapidly that devices are in and out in a heartbeat--e.g., floppy disks.
One of the literary passages I like to use to illustrate the evanescence of such terms is from The Taming of the Shrew. The servant Biondello rushes in to tell everyone how Petruchio is arriving for his own wedding (late, of course) aboard a very bizarre horse, one that's diseased and otherwise ... troubled. Everyone in the Globe understood what he was talking about in the 1590s; only Elizabethan scholars could possibly understand this today; it's one of the most heavily annotated passages in modern editions of Shrew. Here it is ...
his horse hipped with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred; besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives, stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten; near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been often burst and now repaired with knots .... (3.2).
Few literary passages make me feel more ignorant ... annoys me ... maybe I'll fly off the handle?