Can anyone tell me where the phrase temper tantrum came from?

I found a couple of my usual online sources that just say "origin unknown".

  • Totally speculation on my part here (thus not an answer), but it looks Latinate, though definitely not exactly derived. "Temper" from temperare meaning something like what it does in English, to be "mild", or "moderate", and "tantrum", possibly a clever combination of tantulus "so little", and sistrum, a kind of a metal rattle.
    – jscs
    Commented May 6, 2011 at 20:48
  • I like a lot of the answers that have been given. I just feel like I'm looking for something that just isn't there. I was looking for where the word tantrum came from, its origin. But there seems to be some dispute. Commented May 9, 2011 at 12:57
  • @MikeVaughan: you mean the etymology of tantrum itself, rather than the phrase temper tantrum? there goes my work… :(
    – F'x
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 13:09
  • @F'x Actually, I was looking for both. lol. So, I upvoted your answer. Commented May 9, 2011 at 13:26
  • @Mike: I’ll continue looking later today for tantrum etymology, but I don't think it'll turn up anything new
    – F'x
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 13:27

4 Answers 4


I found the word tantrum itself in print back to 1675 in Charles Cotton's burlesque, The Scoffer Scoft. In this passage Bacchus recounts to Apollo how he was sodomized by Priapus (Greek god of fertility), who "tilt[ed] his Tantrum at [Bacchus'] Nock":


I searched "Tantrum at my Nock" and found it referenced in Farmer's and Henley's Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, 1904, which has penis as a second definition of tantrum:

TANTRUM, subs, (colloquial). — 1. Usually in pl. =a PET (q.v.); the sullens; angry whims (GROSE).
1754. FOOTE, Knights, ii. I am glad here's a husband coming that will take you down in your TANTRUMS; you are grown too headstrong and robust for me.
2. (venery).—The penis; see PRICK. 1675. Cotton, Scoffer Scofft [Works (1770), 282]. Twixt some twelve and one o'clock, He tilts his TANTRUM at my nock.

(Slang and Its Analogues also confirms nock as slang for the posterior.)

I can't find any other examples of this euphemistic use of tantrum, but the presence of Bacchus in this passage leads to other clues. From @F'x's "interesting read" link I gleaned this set of definitions of tantrum from Charles Mackay's The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe, 1877:

TANTRUM (Colloquial and Vulgar).

—A fit of ill-temper.

Tantrums, high airs. English cant word. —Jamieson.

Pet or passion. Madam was in her tantrums. —Grose.

Tantrums, pranks, capers; from the tarantula dance. See the account of the involuntary frenzy and motions caused by the bite of the tarantula in the Penny Cyclopaedia.— Slang Dictionary.

Gaelic.— Deann, hot, impetuous, fiery; trom, heavy; whence deann-trom, a hot and heavy [fit of] passion.

The blogger of F'x's link dismisses the tarantula connection in favor of the Gaelic lead, but when I searched "tarantula dance" I found this in a 1783 collection of essays:


and this from Freaks and Follies of Fabledom, 1852:


So, if there is this connection between Bacchus and this ecstatic spider-bite dance, it seems plausible that Cotton's use of Tantrum above could be referencing this as well and thus point to an arachnological etymology. On the other hand, pet and hot & heavy work quite well for the euphemism, too.

A note on temper tantrum: I found this phrase back to a 1920 (check) publication referring to a psychiatric case at John Hopkins University from 1918 in Mental Hygiene vol. IV:


Interestingly, I found the words comma-separated as the fifth definition of flink in The English Dialect Dictionary from two decades earlier in 1900:

A bad temper, tantrum; also in pl.

I think this adjacent use of the words in a such an authoritative work could have easily resulted in the coining of the phrase.


The earliest use found in the Corpus of Historical American English is in The Process of Human Behavior (1929), which according to Google ngram is clearly when it started to see widespread usage:


Most hits of this early period (1900–1930) are scientific or academic writings on human psychology, and the excerpts make it clear that the expression is most commonly applied to children or psychotics.

The uses earlier than 1920 appear sporadic. As temper (late 14th century) and tantrum (early 18th) both widely antedate the phrase itself, I must conclude that it is a construction that was used by some people here and there, until it was used to describe a particular child behaviour (around 1920). It was first used scientifically and became more popular as psychology itself was vulgarized/became fashionable.

On a side note, the etymology of tantrum itself is not settled (as you noted). I found an interesting read here, though it doesn't provide enough hard data to conclude.


While tantrum is of unknown origin, "temper tantrum" dates from 1925-1930.

The phrase feels very natural because of its alliteration. Vis: "tempest in a teapot."


Apparently, in Vedic circles, there was a very taxing and energetic dance called the Trantra. People who practice trantra were called Tantrics and the word tantrum may have possibly been derived.

Very naturally, it got coupled together with the word that causes tantrums.

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