Now say “Tizzie Lish” five times real fast.

Dear Word Detective: From where did the expression “all in a tizzy” come?  I have heard that it might be traced back to a coin, but I wondered if it might have something to do with the alcoholic beverage Tizwin (or Tiswin). — Carmen Christopher Caviness.

That’s an interesting guess. Wrong, but interesting. You’re still one step ahead of me, however, because I must admit I’d never heard of “tizwin” until I read your question. I assumed that my ignorance was just another example of my illiteracy in matters alcoholic, and that “tizwin” was either an exotic relative of absinthe (pretty exotic itself) or a crude concoction made, perhaps, of vodka and Windex and favored by newly-impoverished investment bankers. Then I realized that there is, as yet, no such thing as an impoverished investment banker and decided to actually look up “tizwin.”

According to the Encyclopedia of North American Indians (which is published by Houghton Mifflin and therefore presumably reliable), “tizwin” (or “tiswin”) is a “potent alcoholic beverage traditionally brewed by the Chiricahuas and Western Apaches.” Made from the mescal plant, tizwin was reputed to produce an especially boisterous species of drunk, and its manufacture and consumption on Indian reservations was banned in the late 19th century. The Apaches rightly resented this interference, and the ban prompted the Apache leader Geronimo to lead a breakout from the reservation.

None of that, however, has anything to do with “tizzy” meaning “an agitated state of nervous anxiety” (“Maybe it’s better for the future of the race to live from daze to daze in a perpetual tizzy like Alix,” Ladies Home Journal, 1938). Nor does “tizzy” in this “panic attack” sense have any apparent connection to the use of the word “tizzy” as antiquated British slang for a sixpence coin. That use may be related to the use of “tester” as slang for the same coin, which goes back to the Italian word “testa,” meaning “head,” and its derivative “teston,” a coin featuring the head of a ruler. The first such coin minted in England was a shilling (later devalued to sixpence) bearing the visage of Henry VII.

Since we’ve eliminated so many sources that didn’t produce the “tizzy” we’re investigating, pinpointing the correct origin should be a snap, right? This just in: Life not fair, film at 11. Nobody knows for sure where “tizzy” came from.  The most likely explanation may be our old pal onomatopoeia or “echoic formation,” the development of a word in imitation of the sound (or “feel”) of the thing itself. “Tizzy,” in this scenario, simply sounds like someone upset and anxious.

The question remains as to why “tizzy,” describing a truly ancient human condition, only first appeared in print in 1935. Etymologist Michael Quinion, on his excellent World Wide Words web page (worldwidewords.org), suggests that the sudden popularity of “tizzy” in the 1930s was due to a long-running (1929-47) US radio program called “Al Pearce and His Gang,” which featured a perpetually excitable and distracted character named Tizzie Lish. It’s possible, of course, that the character was named from an existing (but undocumented) folk term “tizzy.”  But since the word “tizzy” in the “state of anxiety” sense didn’t appear in print until this show had been on the air for a while, it’s also entirely possible that the actual origin of “tizzy” can be traced back to whoever named that character “Tizzy Lish.”

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