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shameless pleading

Conniption

Freak Out City.

Dear Word Detective: Not sure if I have the spelling right, but what’s the origin of “conipshin,” meaning a tantrum over some unfavorable event? — Steve K.

The word you’re asking about is usually spelled “conniption.” Not a lot is known about it, but you’ve got the meaning right; a “conniption” is “a fit of rage, alarm, anxiety or frustration” about something. A “conniption,” however, is more than a simple tantrum. The key word here is “fit” in the sense of an inarticulate and dramatic outburst of emotion; citations for “conniption” from the 19th century, in fact, are often in the form “conniption fit.” In 1848, the Dictionary of American English defined “conniption” as “a fainting fit,” and the very earliest use of the word found so far, from 1833, made a “conniption” sound quite serious: “[Aunt] Keziah fell down in a conniption fit.” Another citation, from the Troy, NY Daily Times in 1888, reinforces the sense of a physical “fit”: “Here the bard is supposed to have gone into ‘conniptions’ and collapsed.”

What we do know about “conniption” is that it first appeared in the early 19th century, and it’s almost certainly an American invention because it never caught on in Great Britain. The source of the word is, unfortunately, unknown. But it’s been plausibly suggested that “conniption” arose as a variant of “corruption” in the antiquated sense of “anger” or “temper” (“‘Let alone my goods’ … exclaimed I, for my corruption was rising.” J. Galt, 1830). This sense of “corruption” viewed anger and frustration as the dark, evil side of human nature, as Anne Bronte used it in her 1848 “Tenant of Wildfell Hall”: “I am no angel, and my corruption rises against it.”

While many 19th century uses of “conniption” seem to involve swooning or fainting, with or without foaming at the mouth, today the word has calmed down a bit in popular usage, and is often used to describe a person simply “acting out” when expectations are not met. The boss who wanted your report yesterday, the passenger landing in Detroit whose luggage is apparently en route to Seoul, the diner whose replacement French fries are colder than the first serving (that’s me) are all conniption candidates.

Perhaps because I normally have eerily low blood pressure, I tend not to visibly freak out when things go wrong, preferring to remain quietly nonplussed, which brings me to today’s Princess Bride moment (“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”). “Nonplussed” did not, as many people think, originally mean “unfazed” or “impassive.” It meant “perplexed, confounded or overwhelmed” and comes from the Latin “non plus,” meaning “no more,” as in “I can’t take any more.” Many people, however, see the “non” prefix and assume it signals “having no reaction.” This “wrong” use is rapidly gaining on the etymologically “correct” use, which is how language changes, but I kinda like “nonplussed” in the “no more” sense. I’d throw a conniption about the “proper” meaning of “nonplussed,” but I doubt it would make any difference.

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