The cranky reindeer.
Dear Word Detective: I know when something “gets my dander up,” which is something my mother always used to say, but what does it mean? Also, is it any relation to the cat dander that results from my household of four cats? As an aside, I’ve been told (and firmly believe) that six is the official threshold between generous cat lover and weird sociopathic cat person, so I consider myself safe and healthy. Et tu? — Carl, at work in da Bronx.
Hmm. Is that six cats per person, or a household total of six? There are some cats around here that definitely aren’t mine, such as Phoebe, who slashes at me whenever I walk past her Special Chair. Or Little Girl Cat, who apparently resents the fact that we ran out of names. Saving her from certain death-by-coyote evidently wasn’t sufficient. She wanted to be named Tiffani or Ashleigh or or something.
Due to our, uh, several cats, our house is not normally in a state where we would notice any cat dander. But I think it’s interesting that “dander” in the “stuff that falls from pets and makes you sneeze” sense is the same flaky detritus that is known, in the case of humans, as “dandruff.” “Dandruff” and this sort of “dander” are both just flakes of dead skin from the scalp, which in humans covers just the top of the head but in animals is more of a full-body affair. The origin of “dandruff,” which first popped up in English around 1545, is unknown, but the “ruff” part may be related to the old English dialect word “huff,” meaning “scab.”
The use of “dander” in “get one’s dander up,” meaning “to anger, to provoke someone’s temper,” may or may not be related to the “dead skin” kind of “dander.” If it is, the sense may be similar to “get one’s back up,” also meaning to anger, drawn from the action of a cat arching its back when threatened. Perhaps when one gets very angry one sheds more dandruff. Beats me.
It would make a bit more sense if, as one theory has it, “get one’s dander” referred to another kind of “dander,” perhaps a mutated form of the Dutch “donder,” meaning “thunder.” The equation of “anger” with “thunder” makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence for such a derivation. (By the way, Santa’s seventh reindeer was originally named “Donder,” not “Donner.” “Donder,” thunder, was of a pair with “Blitzen,” meaning lightning.)
Another theory ties “dander” in the “anger” sense to “dunder,” a West Indian word for the fermented cane juice used in the manufacture of rum. But I still find the “donder” theory more convincing.
Whatever the origin, “to get one’s dander up” is considered an American invention, first appearing in the early 19th century, and still very much in use today.