Dear Word Detective: My daughter asked me how the term “haywire” came to mean things going nuts or getting crazy. When she looked for it, her resource suggested that’s what happened when the baling wire holding the hay bales together broke and hay flew everywhere. She thought that was too simplistic and said, “Ask your friend, The Word Detective.” So, my friend, is there more to the story of “haywire”? (I could only find “haymaker” in your archives.) — Marsha Orson.
Ah yes, the “Flying Hay” theory, also the source of the expression of surprise “What the hay?” Your daughter has a healthy skepticism, which will, no doubt, come in handy later in life. The world does not, you may have noticed, seem to be getting any smarter, as the internet persists in proving. I often devote columns to debunking silly stories about the origins of words and phrases, and the columns end up on my website, where readers are free to comment. A small but depressing number of folks zip through my explanations and then, in the comments, post as the “true” origin the same silly story I just debunked. I don’t know whether to be more depressed at the probability that they didn’t read the whole column or the possibility that they did.
A column on “haywire” from 2001 is in my archives, although it seems to be weirdly hard to find. But it’s been more than ten years anyway, so I’ll recap.
In its literal sense, “haywire” is thin, springy wire used in baling hay, straw, and other materials. (I actually spent time years ago running a baling machine in a paper recycling plant, so I know about this stuff.) We use “haywire” today most commonly as an adjective to describe something that has ceased to function properly, usually in a dramatic fashion. But the earliest use of the adjective was in the late 19th century to mean “poorly equipped or inefficient,” specifically in reference to a business (often in the derisive term “haywire outfit”). This usage seems to have come from the use of haywire for makeshift repairs to machinery in, for instance, logging camps lacking the proper equipment. (The same sense of “emergency repair” is found in such phrases as “held together with baling wire and a prayer.”) “Haywire” was also used in this “ad hoc, unreliable” sense to describe any business operation that was poorly-run or marginal (“A haywire, unpredictable, one-man business,” 1959).
The same springy flexibility that makes haywire suitable for emergency mechanical repairs, however, can produce some nasty surprises. When haywire is cut or snaps under pressure, it can instantly whip itself into a tangled mess. (I still have a scar on my arm from an encounter with a baling wire that suddenly snapped 30 years ago.) This propensity to tangle produced the use of “to go haywire” to mean “to suddenly go wrong or break,” especially in a wild or unpredictable fashion, in the early 20th century. A radio that suddenly emits only pops and crackles, a light that turns itself off and on, or a vacuum cleaner that produces clouds of choking dust could all rightly be said to have “gone haywire.”
In the 1930s, “haywire” in this “go wrong” sense was applied, first in the US, to people in a state of confusion or emotional meltdown (“A married man … and absolutely haywire on the subject of another woman,” John O’Hara, 1934). The “snap” of haywire turning from its useful function into a tangled and useless mess also made it a good metaphor for a seriously unbalanced mind (“Some nice homicidal maniac … going all haywire,” 1940). And any larger social arrangement, from a corporate merger to a wedding to a culture itself (“Architecture has gone haywire. Music is without harmony,” 1962) can also “go haywire.”