Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Episode 228: Fly Off the Handle


This week Shauna and Dan try not to Fly Off the Handle as the dig into old dictionaries and early uses of the phrase. Bonus: Maine becomes a State, Buddy Rich, and our favorite pen colors. 

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 228: Fly Off the Handle
Record Date: March 17, 2024
Air Date: March 20, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever gotten so frustrated with a person or situation that it all boiled up inside you and it finally spilled over, causing you to make a scene, or yell at a friend, loved one, or stranger, and leaving you looking like someone with no self-control. In that case, you would be like the head of an ax, flying off the handle.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fly off the handle, or sometimes jump off the handle, means:

to become carried away by excitement; to lose self-control; (now usually) to lose one's temper, esp. suddenly and violently.
End Quote  

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, our phrase references the head of an ax or other tool becoming detached from its handle.

Fly off the handle seemed to enter the English language in the early 1800s.

The first attestation I found was in 1816 in the Portland gazette and Maine advertiser. This is out of Portland, District of Maine.

This is from an article titled “Shall the fair expression of the Public voice be defeated by the Delegates?” This was an article discussing the separation of the District of Maine from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which did eventually happen in 1820. There were numerous attempts to separate Maine from Massachusetts that failed before it eventually passed as part of the Missouri Compromise.

This is dated September 24, 1816.

They know that the question is decided against them, and they are now ready to fly off the handle.
End Quote   

This citation led me down a rabbit hole about the District of Maine, why the 1816 vote failed to result in separation from Massachusetts and the eventual movement towards Statehood. And as someone from the Midwest US all my life, I didn’t really know this history. So you can join me in learning a little more from my bunny trail into this subject in our behind the scenes segment, which airs every Friday on our Patreon, that’s

Here’s an example from the Delaware State Journal, Advertiser, and Star out of Wilmington, Delaware in a letter to the editor mentioning the President’s visit and all the washing, cleaning, and preparing that was being done. This is July 19, 1883.

But the greatest rumpus was at Uncle Joshua’s; for they say the President must stay there all night. And aunt Keziah was in such a pucker to have everything nice, I didn’t know but she would fly off the handle.
End Quote

Let’s look at one from across the pond, so to speak. This is from Lloyd’s Companion to the Penny Sunday Times and People’s Police Gazette, August 13, 1843. And it is out of London, England.

This is an old philosopher talking about his dog, named Mister.

You never see such a crotchical old critter in your life as he is. He flies right off the handle for nothin’.
End Quote

Next up I’ll give two examples from early dictionary type works, then we’ll see another one in the 1900s. This first one is from 1859 in A Glossary of Words and Phrases, usually regarded as peculiar to the United States by John Russell Bartlett. This is the 2nd edition, dated 1859. The author notes the first edition was published in 1848 and then quickly passed out of print. So it doesn’t surprise me that I couldn’t find the earlier version.

There are two in this work that I want to list. First is from page 158:
To Fly off the Handle. To break out, become excited; also, to break a promise.
End Quote

And a slightly different take from page 800.
Off the Handle. To fly off the handle is to fly into a passion. To go off the handle is to give up the ghost, to die. The allusion is to the head of an axe.
End Quote

Give up the ghost is also a great phrase, and you can find our research into that phrase in episode 196.

And the next one is from the work Slang and its Analogues by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley dated 1893. This is from Volume 3, Fla-Hyps and our entry is on page 42. It starts with the phrase, then lists what group of people use it, and then what it means.

To Fly off the Handle (American Pioneer) - To lose temper; to fail of a promise; to jilt; to die; also

To Slip Off the Handle; to disappoint in any way.

In pioneer life for an axe to part company with its handle is a serious trial to temper and patience.
End Quote

We’ll jump into the 1900s now. Here’s a good one from The Star and Newark Advertiser dated November 7, 1908 out of Newark, New Jersey. This one includes the tag line “Preachment on Lack of Self-Control Which Makes Verbal Snapping Turtles Out of Many of Both Sexes”.

There is a homely phrase, not very elegant, but expressive and rather frequently used, known as “flying off the handle”. We may not know the origin of the phrase, or its literal meaning, but we all know the act it describes and its consequences.

It is safe to say that there are none of us without friends or relatives or acquaintances who are not given to “flying off the handle”. It may be barely possible that we are not exempt from the fault ourselves. But it’s a bad business - “this flying off the handle” - for nine times out often it makes the “flyer” ridiculous.
End Quote

Here’s another dictionary type book, An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms upon Historical Principles by Richard H. Thornton. This is Volume 1, A-L, dated 1912. Here is the entry on page 338.

Fly off the handle. To go off in a greate rage; sometimes, to die.
End Quote

The entry goes on to list several early citations of the work, including our 1833 reference.

Here’s an ad in the Union County Journal, December 18, 1947 for the Shellane company. This is out of Marysville, OH.

Housewife, spare that range! Any kind of range is scarce today, so take care of the one you have. If you have a gas range that is not acting as it should, don’t fly off the handle, call us.
End Quote

I do want to talk about our modern uses but first, we’d like to say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon. And the cool thing about Patreon is it is 100% free to join the Bunny Trails community!

We have new things every weekday on the feeds, including a conversation about what everyone is reading, early access to the show, patron’s only polls, and our behind the scenes video which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show.

We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

You can join the Bunny Trails community for free at bunnytrailspod on Patreon.


Modern Uses

Off the Handle is the 8th track on the 1979 album Top Priority by Rory Gallagher. It’s a blues rock song. Here is the opening line:

Well I fly off the handle
A little too quick
Guess you could call me a nervous man
End Quote

Sabatoge is the 6th track on the 1994 album ill Communication by Beastie Boys. It includes a line riffing on famed musician Buddy Rich’s legendarily short temper. The song is… well, I don’t know what style it is. It’s just a Beastie Boys song. If you know, you know.

I can't stand it, I know you planned it
I'ma set it straight, this Watergate
But I can't stand rocking when I'm in this place
Because I feel disgrace because you're all in my face
But make no mistakes and switch up my channel
I'm Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle
End Quote

This next one is a parody of our phrase. Fly Me Off the Handel is a song from the 2005 Live DVD Anarchy in the Ukulele by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

In the song, which we’ll link to in the show notes and on the Patreon, the members all argue about what to play next. They each suggest different tunes, then one member begins, on ukulele, to play a solo “Handel's G Minor Suite Number 7 for the Harpsichord”, while all the other members take turns singing the songs they suggested. They do  "Fly Me To The Moon", "Love Story", "Autumn Leaves", " Killing Me Softly", "Hotel California" and "I Will Survive". And then, they end it all by singing all of the songs, to Handel’s G Minor Suite Number 7, at the same time.

They seem to be a fun act and if they are your thing and you are listening to this soon after it comes out, the group is doing a US tour in April and May of 2024.

99 Ways to Make a Flight Attendant Fly--Off the Handle! is a Guide for the Novice Or Oblivious Air Traveler. This 2018 book was written by Joaan Kuzma Deveny. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

Don't forget to pack this book along with your boarding pass! Never again will you experience that perfected flight attendant eye-roll when following this first guidebook to the etiquette of air travel.Whether you are a frequent or novice flyer, you will be educated and entertained by Deveny's insider's narration of airline tales and humor. It's also a perfect gift idea for a "stew" friend or that oblivious traveler seated next to you!
End Quote

The Fly that Flew off the Handle is a 2023 children’s book by Jonathan Foret and Alexis Braud. Here is a snippet from a piece about the book from the Houma Times, which also includes a synopsis of the book:

Jonathan, who is also the Executive Director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center, is proud to present his newly published children’s book, The Fly that Flew Off the Handle. “The story is about a little fly named Lester who feels angry a lot, but doesn’t quite know why or what to do about it,” explained the author. After a long journey of trying and failing to feel better, Lester meets a little butterfly Seymour who helps him figure out what’s wrong by asking him two simple questions: “What makes you angry?” and “what makes you happy?” Maybe the little fly Lester was just landing on the wrong surfaces this whole time!

“The book was inspired by my time serving in the Peace Corps from 2004-2006. There were lots and lots of flies where I lived and they made me very upset!” laughed Jonathan. “So the idea for the book was born. This has been in the works for years— I kept imagining an angry fly as a character who was trying to be happy.”
End Quote

Wrap Up
I don’t like the action this phrase describes. But I do like how evocative this phrase is. If you’ve ever used an ax, you can imagine what a devastating situation it might be if the heavy, sharpened ax head went flying off of the handle and out of control towards someone. The damage could be life-changing. And when we fly off the handle, the same thing could occur, albeit usually more emotionally than physically. Though sometimes both. I remember someone telling me when I was a young teenager, maybe one of the older ladies at my church, that our words and actions, spoken or taken in anger, can cause wounds that may last a lifetime. I didn’t really get that until embarrassingly late in my life. And in my younger days I was one who would frequently fly off the handle, yelling and screaming and sometimes even throwing things around. Which isn’t a healthy way to deal with anger. So if you are one who is known for flying off the handle, I recommend you talk to a professional. Because even words can cause a lifetime of pain if misused.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, what color of ink do you prefer in your pen? We gave Black, Blue, and Red as options, then one more for “other colors”.

Blue tops the list, followed by black, then “other colors”. Red was no one’s favorite.

Heather said:
My preferred pen is… the Pilot G2 07, but in black. I will use color inks when I'm taking notes where it's helpful to identify different topics quickly.
End Quote

I have a go-to pen that I've used since 2012. And just like Heather, it's the Pilot G-2 07, blue. I have one sitting next to me right now. Before 2012, I was a paramedic an ambulance and would use whatever blue pens I could get a hold of.  I always used blue in those days because I was taught in college that legal documents (like my field notes) should be done in blue ink so you'd know if they were copied. I'm not sure that has been an issue since color printers were invented, but I stuck with it. Now I'm like those people who still put two spaces at the ends of sentences when typing a digital document. It's no longer necessary and may not even be recommended, but still, here I am, with blue pens.

Mary said:
I’m like Dan with legal documents and still think that blue ink is preferred but with the advent of scans and PDFs, I wonder if it holds as much weight as in the past. I chose other because I am a full color note taker. I use Pilot Frixion erasable pens so that I can see changing topics at a glance and fix my many mistakes.  Truth… I love color so it keeps me focused. When I find my mind drifting, I switch colors and magically my focus returns.
End Quote

I’m like Mary with the colors being helpful so for handwritten note taking, I have a set of alcohol-based highlighters so they don’t make the ink bleed. My favorite daily-use pens are the Uni Alpha-Gel Jetstream 07 black ink pen and the Zebra F-402 07 blue ink pen. If I’m taking field notes or doing detail work, I go with the Uni Jetstream Edge. It’s .38mm and an oil-based ink. It writes incredibly smoothly and is waterproof so perfect for things that might be exposed to the elements and for random surface types. Its super-fine point means it writes well on small labels or whatever else might have limited writing space available. I use my Apple Pencil the most out of all of them - I take notes for school on the iPad and do all of my artwork on it as well.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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