While watching the eponymous documentary on Stephen Hawking, his wife described her husband's behaviour when he was deep in thought. She said he could be surrounded by children and not even notice what was going on. She then said, "It used to drive me spare."

I got the gist that she meant it drove her perhaps crazy or to despair. Is this a British idiom? If so, how did it originate? Was there an omission in the phrase?

How does one get to spare from annoyed/upset?

I think that while the previous post is somewhat plausible, it is rather tenuous. To go spare (becoming unemployed) and being driven spare (getting angry) seems quite a leap to me.

To me, even extreme anger and being distraught are two entirely different emotions. The link to loss of employment appears speculative in my mind.

  • Hi GreaseMonkey! This is a great question, but unfortunately origin/etymology questions are off topic on ELL. They are accepted over on ELU, though, so I'm going to migrate this over there. :)
    – WendiKidd
    Oct 12, 2013 at 22:36

1 Answer 1


An older form of this expression, go spare, meaning "become angry" has been discussed on ELU; links there suggest that spare in that phrase may derive from a) "excessively (angry) or b) the emotional reaction to being made "spare", i.e. unemployed.

Partridge, *A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English) gives this: Partridge

Note that second definition. In the Journal of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps for 1948 I find this:

... all a muleteer had to do before going into action or taking cover was to pull, as it were, the alarm chain, let his mule or pony go spare, still retaining a reasonable assurance of the latter being found …

It's beginning to look like "go spare", with a root sense of being unused (as in having some cash or other resources "going spare") or idle (as in being unemployed) or allowed to move freely (as in the RAVC use), evolved in the WWII British Army into an active sense of going out of control (Partridge, Definition 3).

In Blackwood's for 1964 I find this:

... a runaway horse with a vehicle going spare behind it is a lethal combination ...

That seems to me to unite the "unauthorized leave" and "out of control" senses.

  • If it appeared in the 1940s, it seems more unlikely as unemployment rates were very low by then. See chart here ukessays.com/essays/economics/images/98386files/image003.png Then there is the leap to driving one spare. Oct 12, 2013 at 13:35
  • I not entirely convinced by this answer as to how the phrase, used in the sense of being driven angry, came from being idle or unused. While Partridge may have provided example of its use as slang and approximate periods, it doesn't actually explain the origin. The connection to driving one spare is yet another leap. Oct 13, 2013 at 13:08
  • @GreaseMonkey Partridge 2 shows go spare = "depart from duty" as an 'active' extension of be spare = "be off duty". And Partridge 3 seems to me to be a figurative extension of Partridge 2: "depart from military discipline" ⇨ "depart from rational/emotional discipline". Oct 13, 2013 at 14:08

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