There was a time in American English when words were like contraptions you could jerry-rig: a bit from here, a bit from there, all bolted together to make a pseudo-classical bit of hickery. Absquatulate and copacetic are two classics – though copacetic is the newer by nearly a century, showing up circa 1910. Absquatulate hit the scene around 1830. So did contraption – a pseudo-classical construction with a trap stuck in it. And so did conniption.

You know what a conniption is, right? It’s a fit: a fainting fit or a hissy fit or some other pique or fright. We often see the redundant (but assonant) phrase conniption fit – in fact, that’s how it shows up in the earliest attested uses.

I think conniption has a good sound; that nip in the middle is fittingly indignant but short; the gathering con could call on confound and condemn and consarn (a fake-swear probably based on concern and usable where one might use goshdarn), and the ption ending brings out not only contraption but corruption, consumption, and conscription – and eruption and exception, among others. And just maybe, the word as a whole has an air of a sneezing fit.

So where did conniption come from? Um, the US… around 1830… and no one’s really sure of anything more than that. There’s speculation, of course, but not even a whole lot of that. It was confected; it fit well; it stuck. If you look at Google ngrams, you’ll see ebbs and flows over the decades.

Mind you, you’ll also see results from the earliest 1800s. Have a look and you’ll find hits like these:

“there are a thousand occasions in which it breaks through its original conniption” —1803

“The economy of injustice is, to furnish resources for the fund of conniption” —1807

“who would be the avengers, not the abettors of conniption” —1811

“the moral conniption of our first parent has been entailed on his whole posterity” —1811

This is rather entertaining. But if you click through and look at the actual photo facsimile, you will find what you may have already guessed: it’s due to bad optical character recognition. This conniption is in every case a corruption… of corruption.

Tsk. It’s enough to give one a conniption.

6 responses to “conniption

  1. “jerry-rig”? I have only ever heard “jury-rig”. And when I look in google, I find that both exist, though the latter appears to have been around the longer:
    Worth a taste test?

  2. In July 2005, I wrote: I suspect connip(tion) is simply a reversal of “panic”.

  3. Akshay dashore


    I think you meant jury-rig.

    • 🙂 I chose to use the more recent reconstrued variant just in keeping with the spirit of the topic. Jerry-rig shows up first in the 1950s and has been increasing in use since, though jury-rig is still ahead. It’s probably based on jerry-built, which appeared in the 1880s and is not evidently taken from jury (which, as you may know, in this context refers to makeshift nautical parts, not legal assemblies); given the time of its appearance, it’s also quite reasonable to think it’s influenced by jerrycan, which showed up first in the 1940s (also jerrican), and probably the use of Jerry to refer to Germans in WWII (which was also the source of jerrycan).

  4. My high school girlfriend used to say “conniption” when she meant “orgasm”. I’ve never figured out whether from prudishness or plain ol’ not knowing.

    It was more than a little alarming the first time she said “I think I had a conniption.”

  5. I love the idea of jerry-rigging words. The Danes do it a lot, which results in more unpronounceable words that are 17 letters long instead of 10. I often wonder if their Scrabble games are more interesting.

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