Do one’s nut & go spare

Flustered and busted.

Dear Word Detective:  Being a fan of author Terry Pratchett I must face odd British expressions.  Apparently “done his nut” and “go spare” both mean “totally lose your temper.”  Any insight into the origin of these idioms?  — KT Kamp.

Well, I guess the jig is up.  The music has stopped and I have no chair.  It’s finally time to admit that I’ve never read anything written by Terry Pratchett.  I guess I’m banned from the internet now, eh?  I suppose I did have ample warning.  I first heard of Pratchett back in the early 1990s, when everything on the internet was just text and nearly every discussion group teemed  with his passionate fans.  Gradually, I gathered that he is an enormously popular British science-fiction and fantasy writer with an excellent sense of humor.  I’ll give him a shot one of these days, honest.

The fact that Pratchett is British adds considerably to the likelihood that I’ll actually get around to reading him, because one of the attractions of reading British writers is the chance that I’ll run across, as you have, an unfamiliar figure of speech or catchphrase.  Your interpretation of “done his nut” and “go spare” as both meaning “to completely lose one’s temper” is exactly right, and both phrases are, I think, a bit more interesting than American equivalents such as “go ballistic” or “flip out.”  I suppose our “going postal” counts as clever, but it has always struck me as pretty tasteless.

Of the two phrases, “to do one’s nut” is closer to other figures of speech that are probably familiar to Americans.  The word “nut” itself is very old, derived from the Indo-European root “knu,” which meant simply “lump.”  While for most of its subsequent history we used “nut” to mean peanuts, cashews, etc., it also developed a range of figurative meanings, one of which was, in the mid-19th century, “the human head.”  This led to the slang use of “nut” to mean “a crazy, eccentric or obsessive person,” as in “lone nut” or “football nut,” as well as “nuts” or “off his nut” to mean simply “crazy.”   By around 1919 in Britain, the phrase “do one’s nut” had become popular, meaning “to become extremely angry” (“I thought what Grace would say, that she’d do her nut maybe. But she didn’t blink an eyelid,” 1972).  Why “do”?  There probably isn’t a particular reason, aside from the fact that “do” conveys decisive action, as in an explosion of anger.  After all, the “go” in “go nuts” doesn’t really mean you go anywhere.

“Go spare” doesn’t have any relatives in American slang, but the underlying logic of the phrase is sadly familiar on this side of the Atlantic.  The original sense of “go spare,” when it first appeared in British slang in the 1940s, was “to be or become unemployed,” making it a close cousin of the more formal British euphemism for being laid off, “to be made redundant.”  By the late 1950s, the normal emotional reaction to losing one’s job had colored the term “go spare,” and it had had acquired the added meaning of “to become distraught or very angry” (“When he saw what I had done he went spare,” 1958).

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