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shameless pleading

Wigging out

A man (bald), a plan (bold), parakeet!

Dear Word Detective: Is the phrase “wigging out” connected to “flipping one’s wig”? My students were wigging out today after their fifth day (of nine days) of standardized tests in a month. I’m getting a little wiggy myself. — Laura Maxwell.

Wow. I don’t blame them, or you. In fact, even though the last time I was in school was in the Late Jurassic, your question gave me a twinge of panic. To this day the words “pop quiz” give me the fantods, and nine days of tests would have me looking for a cave to hide in.

“Wigging out,” meaning “to show serious signs of (or to break under) stress” does indeed have a connection to “flipping one’s wig,” but that’s just a small part of the strange role wigs have played in English slang.

The word “wig” is fairly strange in its own right. “Wig” first appeared in print in English in the late 17th century meaning, as it does today, “an artificial covering of hair for the head, worn to conceal baldness or to cover the inadequacy of the natural hair, as a part of professional, ceremonial, or formerly of fashionable, costume … or as a disguise” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)). Oddly enough, the word “wig” is actually simply a shortening of the earlier word “periwig,” which meant the kind of highly-stylized wig worn by judges and barristers in the English court system. That “periwig” was derived from the Middle French “perruque,” meaning both a “wig” as we know it and a natural full head of hair. The roots of “perruque” are a mystery, but may lie in the Middle French “perroquet,” meaning “parakeet.” The OED, recognizing that an explanation is called for, offers “… perhaps on account of the mane-like markings on the heads of some species [of parakeets].” There are other theories about “perruque,” but I really like that one.

Given that officials and nobility in 17th and 18th century Britain often wore large ornately-styled wigs as a symbol of office and power (as opposed to the more humble wigs worn by those of lesser stature), it’s not surprising that “bigwig” appeared as slang in the early 18th century for “an important or powerful person,” whether said person actually wore a wig or not (“Wagner … was considered a suspicious character, in more ways than one, by the musical bigwigs of his day,” 1892). In the late 18th century, to be rebuked or scolded by a “bigwig” came to be known as receiving a “wigging.”

That is, however, not the same “wigging” as found in “wigging out.” For that we turn to 20th century African-American slang, where “wig” was used as slang for the human head, brain or mind (“I really do think that there is something wrong with this man’s wig,” 1980). One of the earliest recorded elaborations of this slang sense of “wig” was in “to flip one’s wig,” which appeared in the 1930s meaning both “to lose one’s temper” and “to lose one’s sanity or emotional control” (“My lawyer flipped his wig on the coast and came out here to avoid being committed,” Hunter Thompson, 1967). To “flip,” “snap,” “crack” or “blow one’s wig” was a prescription for landing in “wig city” (1960), a state of mental unbalance, and being scrutinized by a “wig-picker,” a psychiatrist (“Well, dreams, you know. I never put much stock in them. […] those naval wig pickers in San Francisco used to try and worm a few of them out of me,” William Styron, 1960).

The vast array of things that could go wrong with one’s “wig” led, in the late 1950s, to the simpler verb “to wig out,” meaning “to lose control or have a breakdown” (“Some real moldy cat in a library in Alabama wigged out when she saw the white rabbits and the black rabbits on the cover of the book together,” 1959), of which the short form is “wigging.” To be severely stressed and approaching the point of “wigging out” is being “wiggy.”

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