Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term “worry wart”? — Sharon Kawasaki.
Good question, but I wouldn’t let it bother you. I’m always taken aback when folks write in saying that they lie awake at night wondering, even worrying, about the origin of some word or phrase. I, on the other hand, am firmly of the “What, me worry?” school of thought. Last night at around two a.m., for instance, there was a tremendous crash from downstairs. A lesser man might have leaped from bed and raced down to investigate. But I wisely decided to wait until this morning, when I discovered that the cats had merely been rearranging the living room furniture again. No harm, no foul, although I’m still wondering what they did with that table lamp.
“Worry wart,” meaning “a person who worries or frets incessantly,” is one of those phrases that only seem stranger the longer you look at them. It’s possible to worry about warts, of course, although fortunately I don’t think there’s any evidence that worry itself causes warts. I suppose a “worry wart” could be a wart that one “worries” (in the sense of “fiddle with”) in moments of stress, but that sounds like a bad idea.
“Worry” itself is an interesting word, one that has traveled far from its origins. When “worry” first appeared in Old English (as “wrygan”), it meant, not “to fret,” but “to strangle” (putting a whole new light on “put your worries behind you”). That grisly meaning of “worry” softened a bit over the subsequent centuries, first to “bite and shake” (as dogs “worry” their rubber toys today), then “to harass or vex,” until finally arriving at its modern meaning of “to make (or to be) persistently anxious” around 1822.
“Wart,” on the other hand, has meant “a small excrescence on the skin” since it appeared in Old English from a Germanic root. Several centuries of development gave “wart” a variety of figurative meanings, including that of “a defect or unattractive feature” (as in the phrase “warts and all”) and, perhaps inevitably, “an annoying, obnoxious or insignificant person” in the 19th century.
Thus the stage is set for decoding “worry wart” as “a person who annoys others by worrying loudly and constantly over nearly everything.” The earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1956, although an earlier form, “worryguts,” had been popular in Britain since the 1930s. But “worry wart” became a household standard when it was used as the name of a recurrent character in “Out Our Way,” a popular newspaper comic strip drawn by James R. Williams from 1922 to 1957. Oddly enough, Williams’ “Worry Wart” was a young boy who caused worry in others, rather than being plagues by worry himself.