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I am not a coffee drinker, but I just drank some coffee. I said to my Hispanic friend, "I am WIRED!" and had to explain what the slang term means. However now that I think about it, that's an awfully strange term for "very very awake." Where did the word come from?

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5 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

If you've ever had an electric shock, you're well aware of the jolting effects of a live wire.

It didn't take too long for the term live wire to enter the vernacular:

Probably everybody likes to be known as a "live wire." The First National Bank, of Ashland, Ala. thinks so for they recently used an advertisement which read as follows: "Every live wire has a bank account. Are you a live wire?" (The Bankers magazine, 1921).

If, however, you accuse yourself of being a live wire and capable of acting without the sound of a gong or the beck of a boss (from a 1922 ad)

More recently, from the realm of music:

Don't touch me, I'm a real live wire (Talking Heads, Psycho Killer)

I'm guessing that wired evolved from the term live wire, which connotes being energetic, full of verve, and ready to go.

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Maybe. But I'm seeing phrases like I'm wired for such and such that go back just as far. I'm wondering if it could have evolved from this use of the word. (Downvote isn't from me). –  Callithumpian Apr 27 '12 at 21:20
Nor from me, for the avoidance of doubt. I regard it as bad form to downvote answers you are in "competition" with. –  Christi Apr 27 '12 at 21:28
@Callithumpian - I first heard the phrase "wired for sound" used to describe someone who was unusually nervous (actually, he was a heroin addict in early withdrawals, but that's a story for another day) in the late 70s. Sometime in the mid-80s I began to hear "wired" (and my personal favorite, "tired but wired") used to describe the same condition of nervous energy, or caffeine overload. Like you, I always suspected that this use of "wired" was simply shortened from "wired for sound", or something similar. –  MT_Head Apr 27 '12 at 21:43
I'd think wired for such and such would be a reference to circuitry, e.g., "My two daughters are sure wired differently!" But that nuance of wired might be quite different from the using the word to mean "energetic and awake." There seems to be ties, though, between the energetic sense of wired, and the term live wire. (BTW, don't misinterpret my remarks as contentious; on the contrary, thanks to everyone for some very interesting comments that inspired me to think about this even harder.) –  J.R. Apr 27 '12 at 22:26
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The Online Etymology Dictionary says:

Wired (adj.) "nervous, jittery" is from 1970s.

Google Books tells us it's in print in the early 1970s and late 1960s as US and Canadian street slang, and appears to originate from Canada in the 1950s, if not earlier.

The earlier uses seem to mean hooked or addicted (for example to heroin), possibly from a suggestion of being connected to, wired to. This would follow some other earlier uses such "wired for electricity", "wired for aircon" and "wired for sound".

(Other earlier uses of wired are to have messaged someone by telegraph or other means ("I wired the Chicago office"), and it's sometimes used in discussions of how someone's "brain is wired up". It's not clear if these influenced the drug slang term.)

Later uses seem to mean being high, or on a buzz (for example on meths). Around the 1970s, this then became current when talking of legal drugs (for example prescription stimulant drugs, "uppers"), and then quite naturally was soon used for another legal stimulant drug, caffeine, which of course is found in coffee.


Peter Marin and Allan Y. Cohen give an etymology in their 1971 Understanding drug use: an adult's guide to drugs and the young:

In some ways they are the most dangerous of the popular drugs. Known as "crystal" and "speed," they generally create an electric sense of well-being and vitality — a condition the young call being "up" or "wired".

Likewise, John H. Frykman's 1971 A new connection: an approach to persons involved in compulsive drug use:

amped "Wired" on crystal (methamphetamine); stems from the original Methedrine ampules, small glass vials in which pharmaceutical methamphetamine was sold

New York (State). Dept. of Health's 1971 Desk reference on drug abuse:



It is used in a 1970 snippet of The Accountants Digest, where it describes drug use:

This makes them too "wired" to work, so they take a tranquilizer to relax them. At lunch they have three to four martinis which servce to put them "down." After lunch they take two or three Dexadrines to wake them up. This causes them to become too high, too "wired," so they need more tranquilizers. Finally, they take four barbiturates to put them to sleep.

Frank Bonham's 1970 Viva Chicano:

Keeny saw that Gato, who used hard drugs, was wired up. He was chuckling as he jingled some coins in his hand; his bearing was the boundlessly optimistic air of one high on heroin.

US Congress' 1970 Drug abuse: Hearings, Ninety-first Congress, first session: Parts 1-2

"When Bryce Brooks first introduced me to Jim, I was wired out of my mind. I had been up all night in the living room, and then I had gotten up for another hit.

Youth today by Norman Sheffe, 1970:

After a few months she was "wired" to meth. The free "hits" now cost coin; she needed ...

The drug scene: help or hang-up?, Walter L. Way, 1970:

I'd shoot a lot of speed, get real wired up then shoot a lot of yellow jackets. I'd run on speed, stop along the ...


Journal of the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors, Volume 32, 1969 (or possibly 1968):

wired: the exhausted state resulting speed after the initial increased level. ...

This particular property adds to the drug's danger when taken in large doses because the body metabolism is increased while the person has no desire to eat. All reserve energy is used, leaving the person "wired".

Since amphetamines have been used in excessive amounts for years, it is difficult to define the boundaries of the present speed scene.

Etc: a review of general semantics: Volume 26, International Society for General Semantics, 1969:

Aped — "Wired" on crystal or methedrine

CW, Canadian welfare: Volumes 45-46, Canadian Welfare Council - 1969:

After a few months she was "wired" to meth. The free "hits" now cost coin; she needed more of them.


Narcotics and narcotic addiction, David W. Maurer, Victor Hugh Vogel, 1967:

benny jag. Intoxication from ingesting Benzedrine. Also wired on whites, bean trip, white scene. See benny.


Issues in criminology, Volume 1, University of California, Berkeley. School of Criminology, 1966 (or possibly 1965):

Boosting is another lucrative activity aided by the use of amphetamine compounds. A good booster, especially a female, who is "wired on crystals," can "take off" a number of dress shops, ...


Most of the citations I found are snippet view, a full view with confirmed date is in The Vancouver Sun Feb 9, 1963:

I adopted the role of a goof ball and heroin addict fresh from the east coast. My story was that a companion started me on goof balls (controlled drugs) and I was now completely wired up (addicted).


Another full view with confirmed date. Leader-Post, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, Oct 13, 1959:

Since 1939 he had broken the habit only once, while serving a jail term for breaking into a drug store to get narcotics. Within six months of his release he was "wired" again.


A possible 1956 comes from Hearings of the US Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary:

This is what the addict calls being wired or hooked or what is also designated as "the monkey on his back".


And a possible 1951 in Travailleur social: Volumes 20-23 by the Canadian Association of Social Workers:

Any of these may be of greater potential hazard than heroin, the chief drug of addiction in Vancouver. ... They become "hooked" or "wired", one of the characteristics as outlined in the definition of drug addiction.

(Hathi Trust has this journal for searching but full view is unavailable for copyright reasons. Searching different entries, "wired" is found on page 24 of "The Social worker. Travailleur social. v.20-23 (Oct 1951-July 19." and page 24 of "The Social worker. Travailleur social. v.22-23 1953-1955." but not in "The Social worker. Travailleur social. v.20-21 1951-1953.", so a 1953-1955 use looks promising.)

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That's more of a chronology than an etymology, isn't it? –  Christi Apr 27 '12 at 23:06
Much better, although still no indication as to why it came to be used. –  Christi Apr 27 '12 at 23:49
Possible 1956, or OCR error? –  Hugo Apr 28 '12 at 0:11
@Hugo: I think your 1956 is good. If you search for wired within the book, you get a better view of the reference. Also, searching 1956 within the book seems to indicate this is the correct date of the report. –  Callithumpian Apr 28 '12 at 3:15
@Hugo: I like your summary, but I'm not so fond of the "added a lot more." IMHO, we don't need 17 references to support your point, and many of them are rather similar to each other. I'd recommend retaining some of the better ones, and pruning your list – no need to go haywire. Give us a couple that illustrate how wired meant hooked, and then a few more to show how it evolved from meaning addicted to meaning high. You might also want to put the older references on top, to show how the word evolved. Just my 2 cents, but I feel those changes would improve the answer overall; I'd +1. –  J.R. Apr 28 '12 at 11:47
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In the OED this is sense 6(b).

 6. In extended use. Of a person.

a. U.S. slang. With up. Annoyed; provoked. rare.

b. colloq. Intoxicated or ‘high’ on drugs, esp. so as to become hyper or overstimulated. Hence: in a state of nervous excitement; tense; energetic. Also with up.

The only citation given for sense 6(a) is from 1903 but here's an antedating to 1889 from Americanisms—Old & New by John Stephen Farmer.

For sense 6(b) the earliest citation given is:

1977 Daily Mirror (Austral.) 26 May 30/1 Sometimes drugs could trigger Presley into the most incredible of highs.‥ But when he was ‘wired’‥his mood and actions assumed black violence.

But here's an antedating to 1970 from "Drug abuse: Hearings, Ninety-first Congress, first session, Parts 1-2".

And here, in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel (1929), is a use that seems to be ambiguous between 6(a) and 6(b):

He knew hunger. He knew thirst. A great flame rose in him. He cooled his hot face in the night by bubbling water jets. At home the frightened silence of his childhood was now touched with savage restraint. He was wired like a race-horse. A white atom of inchoate fury would burst in him like a rocket, and for a moment he would be cursing mad.

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Your claim, "In the OED this is sense 6", is inaccurate; it is sense 6b in question. The 1889 reference is not relevant to sense 6b. –  jwpat7 Apr 27 '12 at 22:52
@jwpat: Are there any OED citations for sense 6b? –  Hugo Apr 27 '12 at 22:56
@Hugo, unfortunately I don't have access to OED; my comment is based on what Gareth quoted. –  jwpat7 Apr 27 '12 at 22:59
Sense 6(a) is relevant because of the possibility that 6(b) developed from 6(a). I've clarified my answer, I hope, and added the first citation for 6(b). –  Gareth Rees Apr 27 '12 at 23:34
Here's a full view of the 1889 Farmer for verification, and I've sent it to the OED. –  Hugo Jul 13 '13 at 9:41
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Sadly the only etymological dictionary I have access to is the OED 1st ed, for which the meaning you mention is too new even to be in the supplement. However, I suggest it may have had something to do with Galvani's early demonstrations of electricity, whereby he applied electricity to a dead frog, causing it to jerk about. Etymologically it might perhaps have arisen through via later references to his work such as in Frankenstein where the corpse is reanimated by electricity. Coffee has a similar reanimating effect, at least on me.

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One pop-culture landmark for the use of "wired" in the unmistakable sense of "overcaffeinated" or "overenergized" is "Totally Wired" by the Fall (released as a single in 1980). A portion of the lyrics:

I'm totally wired/Totally wired/I'm totally wired/T-t-t-totally wired/ Can't you see?/A butterfly stomach 'round ground?/I drank a jar of coffee/ And then I took some of these/And I'm totally wired...

The earliest use of "totally wired" that I can find in Google Books is this one from Opera News, vol. 30 (1965): "His gray eyes are penetrating behind his pince-nez. his movements quick and decisive; he gives the impression of still being totally wired for contact with the world around him." Here the sense of the phrase seems to be "attuned" or "fully prepared"--not quite "very very awake," but suggestive of a special alertness.

An earlier comment suggested that "wired for sound" might also be relevant to this discussion. The first clearly metaphorical use of this phrase that I found in Google Books was this example from Field and Stream, vol. 71 (1966): "Skunks are usually deodorized when you pick them up down here, but this baby was wired for sound--I still have the suit." In this case, "wired for sound" seems to mean something like "fully potent" (in the sense of the skunk's being able to spray the author with its scent).

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