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I don't know whether the phrase "go spare" is used in the US, but it is very common in the UK.

e.g. You're an hour late. Mum's going spare upstairs!

I would like to know where the phrase comes from, and how it came to get its meaning. Also, what sense of the word "spare" is being used - none really seem to fit?

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My quest for the origin of this expression has "driven me spare". While watching Mr. Hawking's bio on PBS (1/29/14), I too was fascinated by Mrs. Hawking's use of this term. So pleased to find it being discussed on this site. –  user64030 Jan 30 at 3:36

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

http://www.scribd.com/doc/31873955/Dictionary-of-Contemporary-Slang

spare 2 adj British
out of control, furious. The word, usually in the form ‘go spare’, has been in use since before World War II. It derives from the notion of excess

http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/9/messages/572.html

SEND (SOMEONE) SPARE - (U.S. equivalent: drive someone nuts) See also 'go spare.'" From "British English from A to Zed" by Norman Schur (FirstHarperPerennial edition, 1991).

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"It derives from the notion of excess."- How curious. It kind of raises more questions. What does excess have to do with being furious? –  Urbycoz Jul 8 '13 at 9:18
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Excessively angry –  mplungjan Jul 8 '13 at 9:18
    
@Urbycoz: I couldn't say if it was directly involved in the appearance of this usage, but obviously to go over the top, to overdo it, to go beyond the pale, etc., all include the notion of excess, and could be used in much the same contexts. –  FumbleFingers Jan 30 at 13:43
    
Would LOVE to know why I got a down vote on this –  mplungjan Jul 4 at 20:48

According to Word Detective, go spare originally meant be made redundant, and the anger was a secondary effect:-

The original sense of “go spare,” when it first appeared in British slang in the 1940s, was “to be or become unemployed,” making it a close cousin of the more formal British euphemism for being laid off, “to be made redundant.” By the late 1950s, the normal emotional reaction to losing one’s job had colored the term “go spare,” and it had had acquired the added meaning of “to become distraught or very angry” (“When he saw what I had done he went spare,” 1958).

I can't say that I find this explanation particularly convincing, but I offer it for what it's worth.

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I don't find that "explanation" at all convincing. The guy on Word Detective has simply inferred a connection because OED happens to include both definitions under a single heading. It seems obvious to me they did that because it's the same actual words, not because the second sense arose from the first. In any case, it's not so much going spare = unemployed - OED's citation is more a matter of Richard Dimbleby letting it be known that he was going spare = available for work. I doubt he was exactly "doing his nut" on account of being laid off work. –  FumbleFingers Jan 30 at 13:56
    
My dad said my grandad was laid off in 1948 and he was termed to be 'going spare'. This teamed with the obvious annoyance it would breed leads me to buy that colloquial language would adopt the phrase as a depiction of anger. –  Steve Dodd Jul 4 at 9:50

The entry for the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (this edition 1984) seems to capture one possible path for the evolution of this phrase quite nicely. The first three meanings were all British Army slang, and the progression from idle to AWOL to angry makes perfect sense.

Idle, not engaged on any particular job (Army, W.W. I),

Absent, especially without leave (Army, 1939+),

Angry, as "when the sarnt sees this, he'll go fucking spare" (Army, since ca. 1940).

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A synonym for "go spare" is to "go thin." If someone's patience is "getting thin," they're about to get angry.

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I've sometimes wondered if it might not relate to Austin Osman Spare, the WW1 War artist. He showed enormous talent and promise before the War, but many thought he 'went a bit odd' afterwards, and he dropped out of sight and was almost unknown by his death in 1955. He regained some popularity in the 70's, but was definitely weird or inspired, depending on your viewpoint. Look up his self-portraits, or if you can find it, his portrait of Hitler. Then there are his writings... Anyway, just a random thought...

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This is probably more a comment than an answer. :) –  Ronan Mar 13 at 11:40
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Interesting idea, but random thoughts without corroboration are not real answers. –  Daniel Mar 13 at 14:36
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This is more a very good comment than an acceptable answer. :) –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 14 at 16:43

Cockney rhyming slang: spare tyre = ire.

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Welcome to ELU.SE! Please take a moment to find upvoted answers to see the type of answer this site is looking for. We also provide help on answering questions. This answer is plausible, but could do with some sort of corroboration if further downvotes or even deletion are to be avoided. –  Andrew Leach Jul 4 at 14:43

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