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shameless pleading

Worry wart

Don’t sweat it, Bumpy.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term “worry wart”? — Sharon Kawasaki.

Good question, but I wouldn’t let it bother you. I’m always taken aback when folks write in saying that they lie awake at night wondering, even worrying, about the origin of some word or phrase. I, on the other hand, am firmly of the “What, me worry?” school of thought. Last night at around two a.m., for instance, there was a tremendous crash from downstairs. A lesser man might have leaped from bed and raced down to investigate. But I wisely decided to wait until this morning, when I discovered that the cats had merely been rearranging the living room furniture again. No harm, no foul, although I’m still wondering what they did with that table lamp.

“Worry wart,” meaning “a person who worries or frets incessantly,” is one of those phrases that only seem stranger the longer you look at them. It’s possible to worry about warts, of course, although fortunately I don’t think there’s any evidence that worry itself causes warts. I suppose a “worry wart” could be a wart that one “worries” (in the sense of “fiddle with”) in moments of stress, but that sounds like a bad idea.

“Worry” itself is an interesting word, one that has traveled far from its origins. When “worry” first appeared in Old English (as “wrygan”), it meant, not “to fret,” but “to strangle” (putting a whole new light on “put your worries behind you”). That grisly meaning of “worry” softened a bit over the subsequent centuries, first to “bite and shake” (as dogs “worry” their rubber toys today), then “to harass or vex,” until finally arriving at its modern meaning of “to make (or to be) persistently anxious” around 1822.

“Wart,” on the other hand, has meant “a small excrescence on the skin” since it appeared in Old English from a Germanic root. Several centuries of development gave “wart” a variety of figurative meanings, including that of “a defect or unattractive feature” (as in the phrase “warts and all”) and, perhaps inevitably, “an annoying, obnoxious or insignificant person” in the 19th century.

Thus the stage is set for decoding “worry wart” as “a person who annoys others by worrying loudly and constantly over nearly everything.” The earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1956, although an earlier form, “worryguts,” had been popular in Britain since the 1930s. But “worry wart” became a household standard when it was used as the name of a recurrent character in “Out Our Way,” a popular newspaper comic strip drawn by James R. Williams from 1922 to 1957. Oddly enough, Williams’ “Worry Wart” was a young boy who caused worry in others, rather than being plagues by worry himself.

9 comments to Worry wart

  • Angela

    hmm im a worry wart…but its a little bit diffreant then what you are saying..my worrying makes me to the point i get myself sick…i start by just crying then i start puking i dont tell anyone but is there any cures to worrying?

  • Stuart Thompson

    Everybody worries about something, it’s only natural. When people worry about everything to the point of making themselves sick, just remember one thing. Worry is nothing more than misuse of your imagination. Most of what we worry about never happens anyway so why worry about it? Put on some good music and relax. Try to keep a positive attitude and enjoy your life! It’s not that hard.

  • Rand

    “Love, Pam—always the ‘worry wort’ ( What IS the origin of this expression?!)”

    When my dear sister asked, I responded as follows, and thought someone here might be amused:

    Please know your query cost me quite a few pleasant hours procrastinating, sidelined as I was to be of some service. It would appear worry wort would be derived from some root talisman — hahah — I can see a grandfather pulling a shiny twist from a vest pocket and worrying it with his thumb… …a more modern usage, worry wart, evidently came from a similar lost, deeply personal and resonant awareness, perhaps this time of some great aunt (how my gender-bias shows! I’m blushing), one gnarled hand rolling over the other with a horrifying pink wart bending above a dark knuckle and signaling nightmares to follow –

    But here’s some better prose for that latter spelling, describing a serial newspaper strip I think running from the 30s through the 50s (I could check!), in which the characters were timeless as Sluggo and hence, family:

    Cowboy Cartoonist [comic strip 'Out Our Way' by U.S. cartoonist J.R. Williams (1888- 1957) ...]

    Often it is pathetic rather than funny. The people it depicts are simple, worried U. S. proletarians: weedy, bedraggled cowhands, tintypical Americans of a generation ago. Some of them (the shambling, baggy Negro Big Ick, the fiddle-case-footed shop foreman “Bull of the Woods,” the blowzy, ingeniously self-thwarting moppet “Worry Wart”) are as real to newspaper readers as their own cousins. Its homely humanity, bleak realism, and salty, Mark Twainish humor have attracted the attention of Americana-collecting highbrows, have earned for its author the title “Will Rogers of the Comic Strip.”

    I love this quote. It supports one of my weird ideas, that Googling tends to break the psychic connection we have with each other, which is how new words gain meaning in the common psyche (collective unconsciousness? fine!). Modern Efficiencies prefer to pretend it’s all about what shows up in The Record. Ah, Achievement, it’s the only way we know to measure value. Seems a shame…

  • Kim

    This is so interesting! My father was nicknamed after this very comic character because he apparently did cause worry in others. I had always though it quite gross that my father was being refered to as ‘Wart’. He was born in 1926 and died recently, it was at his memorial service that one of my uncles explained that it was after this comic character that he was nicknamed. thanks for the info!!

  • Jamie

    I believe the term worrywart describes a skin lesion caused by excessive picking or scratching done unconsciously when some one is under stress. Some times it is the cuticle around the thumb or a place on the forearm. The excessive scratching or picking causes scabbing and over time can become a callased raised area resembling a wart.

  • Natalie

    I believe “worry wart” 1st came about because of people who worry/stress so much that they cause themselves to get a fever blister. Which was referred to as a “worry wart”.

  • David

    “Worry wart”could literally mean a lesion.
    As I understand it, a fever blister is (like a cold sore) a form of the herpes virus.
    Herpes lies dormant most of the time, erupting in – you guessed it – times of stress.

  • I believe the term “Worry Wart” derives from an infection just below the skin, that gives a Wart-like appearance.

    I had one and it began to become more and more swollen. In fact the pain was so intense that I started to “Worry”

    At times, the center of the infected area seems to move beneath the skin.

    I got a sharp knife and lanced the side of the infected area and a Warthog jumped out.

    So, I believe that is why they call it a Worry Wart.

    Hope you enjoyed my dry story and yes, you’ll never get that minute and a half back. Ha ha!

  • Andrea

    I always thought it was worry WORT. Hmmm.

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