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shameless pleading

Fits and starts

It’s a bad sign that this immediately reminds me of our car, henceforth to be known as “Lurch.”

Dear Word Detective: I was surprised to come up empty on the the Word Detective site in a search for “fits and starts.” I’ve heard people of a certain age use the expression to describe something unsteady or intermittent. Any back-story on this expression? — Charlie Nunzio.

Well, you’ve saved me some time. Now I don’t have to do my usual search of my own website to make sure I haven’t already answered your question.

“Fits and starts” does indeed mean “intermittent” or “off and on, spasmodically, not making steady progress.” A project that proceeds “by fits and starts” will advance a bit one day, less the next, perhaps take a week or so off, then enjoy a burst of energy when the boss comes to visit, and so on. The first part of a large lawn mowed “in fits and starts” will, I can attest from personal experience, need mowing again by the time the last bit is done.

Interestingly, our modern phrase “by fits and starts” represents the merger of two earlier, and now largely obsolete, phrases: “by starts,” which first appeared around 1421, and “by fits,” dating to 1583. Both phrases meant, brace yourself, exactly what “by fits and starts” means today. But English idioms often operate on the more-is-better model, as in such redundant phrases as “by leaps and bounds,” where “bound” is simply a synonym for “leap” and both mean “to spring or jump forward energetically.”

There are several “fit” words in English, the most common probably being the verb “to fit,” meaning “to be of proper size” or “to be suitable,” as well as “to modify something to make it conform to requirements.” The verb “to fit” appeared in the late 16th century, probably derived from the adjective “fit,” meaning “proper or suitable,” which may have been a development of the Middle English “fit” meaning “an opponent of equal power” (possibly connected to the Old English “fitt” meaning “conflict”).

The noun “fit” found in “fits and starts” is considered a different word than that “fit,” but it also seems to have been derived, somewhat more directly, from that Old English “fitt” meaning “conflict.” Beginning in the 16th century, this “fit” was used to mean “an intense but usually transitory attack of illness or other disorder,” and by the 17th century it meant specifically “a paroxysm or seizure often involving unconsciousness.” The sudden violence of a physical “fit” led to the word being used to mean “a sudden burst of spasmodic activity,” thus giving us the “fit” in “fits and starts.”

The “starts” in the phrase comes from the verb “to start,” which, drawn from Germanic roots, originally meant “to leap, jump, spring or move suddenly.” The modern sense of “to begin or set in motion” is actually a relatively late arrival, dating to the 17th century. The noun form “start” initially meant “a moment or an instant,” but by the early 15th century was used to mean “a sudden and transient effort or movement,” roughly the sense now found in “fits and starts.” The use of “start” to mean “a beginning” didn’t appear until 1566.

Another use of the verb “to start,” that of “to move abruptly in fear or surprise” gave us both a noun for that reaction (“One or two old men were dozing upon their chairs, waking up every now and then with a start.” 1902) and the verb “to startle,” meaning “to react or cause someone to suddenly react with alarm or fear” (“Bob was startled by the unexpected arrival of his boss during his afternoon nap.”).

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