Perchance to seethe.
Dear Word Detective: Can you please explain the origin of “fever pitch?” Is the musical notion of pitch somehow generalized to mean a rate of speed or intensity? Are you supposed to get a fever when you reach this rate? I’ve looked in your archives and in World Wide Words, and I’ve tried The Google, but I haven’t found any answers. I’m afraid I’m going to break out in a cold sweat. — Don Creach.
That’s a good question. “Fever pitch” is certainly a staple of modern news writing. At the moment, Google News offers 685 links to stories employing the phrase to describe everything from excitement over a new sports league in India (“Investing at fever pitch in India’s cricket bonanza”) to gossip over a celebrity break-up (“The buzz over Reggie Bush and Kim Kardashian’s split has reached fever pitch…”). There are also, predictably, several dozen headlines employing the phrase in connection with the health care reform bill recently passed here in the US (“Health Care Drama Reaches Fever Pitch” being typical), because the key to good journalism is, of course, bad puns.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “fever pitch” as “a state of extreme agitation or excitement,” but I’d have to add “extremely intense activity” to the list (“Bob was working at a fever pitch in a desperate attempt to meet the midnight tax deadline”). Merriam-Webster Online dates the first use of the phrase to 1846, which seems too recent to me, but I haven’t found anything to contradict that date. Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster Third International Dictionary (1961) offers a weirdly lurid definition of the term: “A degree of abnormal excitement that usually develops rapidly among a number of people and sometimes leads to impulsive violence.” I think I’ve seen that movie. Sidney Poitier makes the crowd see reason in the last reel, right?
The original sense of “pitch” when it first appeared in English as a verb around 1200 was “to thrust in, to fasten firmly” (a sense we still use when we “pitch” a tent), drawn from roots related to “pick” and “prick.” Both the verb and noun forms of “pitch” have acquired a dizzying range of meanings since then, including, for the verb, “to throw,” “to fall suddenly,” and, of course, “to try to sell or convince by persuasion.” As a noun, “pitch” began with the sense of “height, slope or angle of slope,” and then accumulated a range of meanings either associated with “slope” or tied to the verb senses of the word (e.g., a baseball “pitch”). “Pitch” in the sense of “slope” led, in the 16th century, to use of the word to mean “height” in a figurative sense, or the degree of intensity of something. Thus the “pitch” of a sound refers to its “height” or position on a scale, and the “pitch” of an activity or condition refers to its intensity (“The feelings are wound up to a pitch of agony,” William Hazlitt, 1822). This is clearly the sort of “pitch” we have in “fever pitch.”
Prefacing “pitch” with “fever” is a bit ambiguous, but I think the key to unraveling “fever pitch” lies in terms such as “fevered” and “feverish,” both of which denote a state of overwrought excitement, restless energy and delirious frenzy such as might be brought on by a severe fever. Of course, people actually in the grip of a high fever rarely get any constructive work done, and “fever pitch” taken literally would more accurately describe the state of someone wrapped in blankets babbling at the TV than our friend Bob frantically doing his taxes, but that’s the English language for you.