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Fits and starts

A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step, followed by a brief nap.

Dear Word Detective:  I was surprised to come up empty on the Word Detective web site  search of “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 know our motto: there are no unanswered questions; there are only questions that I haven’t gotten around to answering, usually because nobody asked them. I’ve been tempted at times to make up my own questions, but that’s a bit like baking your own birthday cake. I used to have a muse, named Edith Freedle, who would occasionally appear in my office accompanied by a puff of smoke, a bucket of inspiration and the smell of many cats, but last I heard she was doing a stretch in the slammer for trans-temporal mopery.

But this is a good question, so here we go. Something that is done in “fits and starts” is intermittent, happening in an irregular, sporadic fashion, without sustained progress. If I were, for example, to embark painting the trim on our front porch, I might well throw myself into the task for a hour or two the first day, sanding little spots, then zone out for a week or two before remembering to go buy paint. Similarly, many would-be novelists proceed in “fits and starts,” forging a paragraph here, a dozen tweets there (there’s even a Twitter account, @WrknOnMyNovel, that impishly collects and re-tweets tweets containing the words “working on my novel”). People who paint or write in “fits and starts” often eventually reach the finish line, but it’s not a smooth road.

The idiom “fits and starts” first appeared in print in the early 17th century (“If thou hast these things only by fits and starts,” 1620), but its constituent parts, “by fits” and “by starts” are both a bit older, first appearing in 1583 and 1421, respectively. Conveniently, both phrases meant the same thing that “by fits and starts” means today.

The “fits” in “by fits” is not the “fit” you worry about when buying shoes. This “fit” first appeared in Old English (as “fitt”) from Germanic roots, and in Old English it meant “struggle, conflict.” In English it initially meant “a crisis; a situation of hardship or peril,” but that use is now obsolete. By the mid-16th century, “fit” had developed its modern sense of “a paroxysm, attack or seizure” caused by a malady or medical condition, and was also used colloquially to mean “a state of excitement, extreme distress, etc.” (“Bailey Millard is throwing fits all around the shop … because of the way you worded your announcement,” Jack London, 1906). “Fit” was also used to mean a brief, transitory period of activity (or inactivity, feeling, etc.), which led to “by fits” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “by irregular impulses or periods of action, at varying intervals, fitfully, spasmodically” (“The Swallow … sleepeth but by halves and fits (as we say) which is no sound kinde of rest,” 1635). As you’ve probably guessed by now, this is the same “fit” we find in “fitfully.”

The “start” in “by starts” is the same noun meaning “beginning” we use in sentences such as “Bob got off to a good start by complimenting his boss on his toupee,” and comes from the verb “to start,” which comes from roots carrying the sense of “leap up” or “move swiftly.” Our “beginning” use of “start” is actually a relatively recent development of the noun. In concert with the verb, the earliest sense of “start” was “a leap, a sudden effort,” which, by Chaucer’s time (late 1300s), had evolved into “a sudden involuntary movement,” a sense which also gave us the related verb “to startle.” This led to “start” in the sense of “a sudden, sporadic and transient display of energy or effort” very similar to the “sporadic impulse” sense of “fit” (“I took up my Pen againe, and at starts and tymes finished it,” 1621).

“Fit” and “start” were so close in meaning that pairing them to mean “in an on-again, off-again manner; sporadic” not only made sense, but emphasized that the key to waiting for something (or someone) moving “by fits and starts” is not to hold your breath.

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