It starts with a faint odd sensation, like a phantom over your shoulder, a sort of haunted feeling. You feel like a toad suspended over a fan. Something’s not right… you get the willies, the whim-whams, the jim-jams, the jitters, the heebie-jeebies. Could it be mere fantasy? But you have that horrible hunch and horripilation; you are like a black cat with arched back, with fine dots of static fear in your fur. You look over your shoulder – not there, not over the other, but you can’t evade the black dog that pursues your penumbra. Then, from somewhere behind you, there is a pop and a hiss! You scream, or faint, or do first one and then the other or first the other and then the one.
Of course the sound was just a bottle of Fanta, odds are. But you have experienced an attack of the fantods. Oh, they are the fount-head of anxiety, and they always come in a group, like chills, willies, heebie-jeebies, and so on. Often we say something gives you the fantods, and often the fantods are modified with a present participle adjective: the flaming fantods, the leaping fantods, the galloping fantods, the swivelling fantods (like if you’re sitting at your desk chair alone in the office at 8:37 and a voice right behind your ear suddenly says “Hello”), or – as is also the name of a David Foster Wallace fan site – the howling fantods.
All of which gives you a sense of the growing extremity of this condition. It is, of course, a state tending to magnification; it happens that the sense has also magnified over its history. In the mid-1800s it was a fidgety state; by 1884, it had grown to the creeps, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was remarking, “These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fan-tods.” And on into the 20th century they only got worse, so that, for instance, in 1999 we could see in the Atlanta Journal “He is beside himself, in flaming fantods, screeching histrionics in the direst of foreboding and doom” (thanks to Michael Quinion for that citation). In its loosest sense it can refer even to the kind of state where you’re screaming abuse at a machine, such as when your software crashes, losing an hour’s work on, say, a word tasting note (which is why you didn’t get one yesterday).
It’s a soft-sounding word, though. The huffing /f/ and the echo of faint make me think of hyperventilation. The second syllable sets the mouth in a sort of half-round gape. To me, it sounds sort of like the sort of term Snagglepuss would use to describe some hapless hunter’s hissy fit: “Heavens to Murgatroyd! The fantods, even!”
Where does it come from? Ah, now, that’s a bit of a dark mystery. Some say it came from fantasy or fantastic; some say it came from the dialect word fantique; and I have heard tell that it was named for a razor-wielding fan of Sweeny Todd, fond of infanticide but willing to take all, lurking in the shadows looking for his next neck to slit, still on the loose… they say he’s… right there, over your shoulder.