"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


Marc, a blogger from Vancouver, says in his profile - "Why do I write? Because not writing isn't an option. I get antsy if I get close to the end of a day without having written something."

I thought the meaning of antsy was fairly obvious and sure enough, upon checking, it turns out to be a slang term for "restless, apprehensive and fidgety". But I wondered where it came from?

Heather Swofford in The Mavens' Word of the Day wrote the following interesting passage.
"Antsy, which means 'restless; uneasy; impatient; anxious; fidgety', has a somewhat questionable origin. Without doubt, it eventually refers to the constant activity of ants, but the real question is whether or not it's the original expression or not."

"The familar phrase to have ant's (sic) in one's pants 'to be restless or irritable' dates from the 1930s. The word antsy became common in the 1950s, which suggests that antsy is derived from the earlier phrase. But there is one example from the nineteenth century that makes the issue murky. In an 1838 journal is the sentence: "Minard's talking & Peake's scribbling were enough to drive anyone ancey [sic]." Now, on the one hand this would seem to be the earliest example of our word. However, this is over 100 years before its next known use. If antsy--in whatever spelling--were really in use in the 1830s, it's rather unusual that there's no other example for such a long time."

"This could mean that the 1838 example is a coincidence, that it's not the same word as our antsy. Or it could be the same word, but for whatever reason, scholars haven't found any other early examples, in which case the "ants in one's pants" phrase would itself be an elaboration of antsy. "

(Someone needs to read "Eats, shoots and leaves" by Lynne Truss!)


  1. The term "ants in one's pants", in the theater of the mind, creates such a picture that, seriously, antsy doesn't cover it.

  2. Isn't it odd how some words we really take for granted have such mysterious origins?

    Oh, while I'm here - I've got a request for you. A fellow blogger recently posed the question "where does the phrase 'under the weather' come from anyway?" I thought you'd be the man to turn to :)

    @ Shabby girl - haha, that's a very good point.

  3. Hi Marc,
    'Under the weather' as a popular phrase for "ill" dates back at least to 1827. I believe that "under the weather" is an old nautical phrase. When men were sick, they would rest below deck and thus were literally "under" the weather, below the deck. Moreover, the deck the sailors would usually be under was "the weather deck", the most exposed deck on the ship, usually the foredeck (over the seamen's quarters at the front end of the ship.

  4. Awesome - thanks very much!

    I shall point her over here post-haste.