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According to the OED the sense of spoiling for a fight/argument etc is of US origin.

Does anyone know the provenance of this use?

OED

to be spoiling for (a fight, etc.), to long for, to desire ardently or earnestly. Also const. inf. orig. U.S.>

1865 L. Stephen Sketches from Cambr. 67 We are in the condition which the Yankees call ‘spoiling for a fight’.

1890 R. L. Stevenson Lett. (1899) II. 191 The native population..chronically spoiling for a fight.

1893 Nation (N.Y.) 16 Nov. 368/2 Dr. James Martineau, who, in spite of his eighty-nine years, seemed still to be ‘spoiling for an argument’.

a1960 E. M. Forster Maurice (1971) vii. 42 Durham..would be found at all hours curled up in his room and spoiling to argue.

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  • 1
    Out of curiosity, when a reader notifies the OED the existence of an earlier instance, does one ever get a reply? Similarly, how often is the online OED updated? Is it every couple of months, or do years pass by? I'm sure I could Google this info but I can't be asked.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 3, 2015 at 8:36
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    @Mari-LouA I only ever contacted the OED once, and that was by use of old-fashioned mail. They were not especially speedy, but a short time later a lady telephoned me to talk about it. I can't remember what the issue was but it turned out that the OED entry was correct and that it was me who was misinterpreting something. Anyway they were most courteous, and welcoming of the contact. It is the same with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where I was on one occasion able to correct an error concerning details of someone's family. They were grateful for the help.
    – WS2
    Nov 3, 2015 at 8:48
  • @Mari-LouA I have no idea how often they update the on-line edition. But I feel certain that a person like you, with an intimate knowledge of both English and Italian - the Latin connection and all that - would be received very kindly.
    – WS2
    Nov 3, 2015 at 8:52
  • Isn't that great? True British courtesy. I love it when things like that happen. I've contacted them via online, sightings of earlier instances, nothing more but I've never heard a word from them. Anyway, be sure to notify OED about Sven's and Josh's sightings by slow mail :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 3, 2015 at 8:53
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    The OED is always a work in progress. Just like English. You can't update 20 volumes just like that. And now, of course, it is digitized.
    – Lambie
    Jun 23 at 14:09

4 Answers 4

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The earliest Google Books match for the phrase that I could find is from Emma Southworth, The Hidden Hand, Or, Capitola the Madcap (1859):

"Hum! you are like the Bowery boys in times of peace, 'spoiling for a fight.'"

"Yes, I am! just decomposing above ground for want of having my blood stirred, and I wish I was back in the Bowery! Something was always happening there! One day a fire, next day a fight, another day a fire and a fight together!"

...

Besides, there seemed just now nothing to do—no tyrants to take down, no robbers to capture, no distressed damsels to deliver and Cap. was again in danger of "spoiling for a fight." And then Herbert Greyson was at the Hall—Herbert Greyson whom she vowed always did make a Miss Nancy of her!

In this example, the second speaker in the initial conversation explicitly equates "spoiling for a fight" with "decomposing" above the ground"—that is, going to waste or wasting away in the vegetative sense. The missing but implied element in the phrase is "for want of," as in "spoiling for want of a fight." I see no reason to doubt that this was the earliest sense of the expression.

The author, E.D.E.N. Southworth, grew up in Washington, D.C., but also lived in Wisconsin before 1859. The Hidden Hand was first published in the New York Ledger, according to Wikipedia.


The earliest instance of "spoiling for a fight" in the Library of Congress's Chronicling America newspaper database is from the [Baltimore, Maryland] Daily Exchange (June 1, 1858):

In the Senate of the United States on Saturday, there was "great cry and little wool." Talk and nothing but talk has, thus far, been the only result of all the indignation excited in this country by the insolent proceedings of the British cruisers on the Gulf of Mexico. Senator MASON offers a string of resolutions, in affirmance of general principles, which nobody doubts, and which have been affirmed and re-affirmed any time these fifty years by succeeding generations of American statesmen. Senator TOOMBS who announced his readiness to whip Great Britain, more than a week ago, and who has been spoiling for a fight ever since, continues implacable, and refuses to be appeased until "the aggressors upon our rights" have either been "sunk," or otherwise brought to "condign punishment."

Searches of the Chronicling America newspaper database and various regional newspaper databases yield ten unique instances of the phrase from the following year, in eight different U.S. states or territories: in the Delaware [Ohio] Gazette (February 4, 1859), the Burlington [Vermont] Free Press (April 29, 1859), the Cincinnati [Ohio] Daily Press (May 7, 1859), the [Houston, Texas] Weekly Telegraph (June 8, 1859), the [Honolulu, Hawaii] Pacific Commercial Advertiser (September 1, 1859), the Cadiz [Ohio] Democratic Sentinel (September 14, 1859), the [Charlotte, North Carolina] Western Democrat (October 11, 1859), the Richmond [Virginia] Dispatch (October 13, 1859), the [San Francisco, California] Daily Alta California (November 9, 1859), and in the Erie [Pennsylvania] Observer (December 10, 1859). It thus appears that the expression caught on and spread rapidly in the United States in 1858–1859.

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  • Very relevant. But how interesting that in 150 years we have completely forgotten this origin and that the term spoiling for... is another way of expressing eagerness for conflict.
    – WS2
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:19
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    @WS2: I think that even from the beginning it had that sense of extreme pugnaciousness (see the newspaper instances from 1858 and 1859 for examples). It reminds me of the similar hyperbolic usage "dying for an X" where "an X" can be "a fight" or any of a multitude of other things. What's odd (and interesting) to me is that "spoiling for a" didn't branch out in the same way, but became locked into the single idiom "spoiling for a fight."
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:42
  • ...I note that Farmer & Henley, Slang & Its Analogues, volume 6 (1903), gives two uses of "spoil for," in closely allied senses: "SPOIL, verb. (various). In addition to the sense (now accepted) given by GROSE ('to mar, to place obstacles in the way') there are colloq. usages as follows: — To SPOIL FOR = to be eager for : as 'SPOILING for a fight,' and SPOILING to be invited; ..."
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 3, 2015 at 0:03
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    I would think that this may also have been a bit of a play-on-words since "spoils" is also an archaic synonym for "plunder" ("To the victor go the spoils.") Therefore "to go spoiling" could interpreted as going out looking for things to steal. So you have a double meaning of both losing their skills if they don't get into a fight and also, potentially, of going out to steal things just because they want a fight.
    – Perkins
    Nov 3, 2015 at 0:42
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    Studies in English, Written and Spoken: For the Use of Continental Students. 1st. series · Volume 1 By Cornelis Stoffel · 1894, on Google Books goes on for a bit about how nobody knows the origin, then suggests its origin lies in using the phrase for boxers who have lost efficiency as a result of lack of practice, leading to the secondary sense of looking for a fight. This seems likely.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 23 at 13:10
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According to Etymonline, to be spoiling for (phrasal verb):

  • To be spoiling for (a fight, etc.) is from 1865, from notion that one will "spoil" if he doesn't get it.

Ngram: spoiling for a fight

One early usage example is from Self-made men by Charles C. B. Seymour 1858:

  • Smith, who, to use a vulgar expression, was spoiling for a fight, determined to join the Christians, and show the infidels what hard fighting really meant.
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  • Desire is not hyphenated in the original, although "expressing* is. And something has disrupted the the part that begins "They are becoming", which is unnecessary to the example.
    – deadrat
    Nov 2, 2015 at 23:10
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    It seems like it is :) And it looks that both you and Sven have examples from 1858.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 3, 2015 at 8:24
  • @Mari-LouA - thanks for checking, yes those actually predate Etymonline and OED references.
    – user66974
    Nov 3, 2015 at 8:31
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    You'll both have to notify them.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 3, 2015 at 8:32
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    +1. Google Books Italia strikes again—excellent find from 1858, Josh61!
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 3, 2015 at 9:00
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There has long been a connection between spoiling and fighting.

Habakkuk 1:3 Authorized (King James) Version (AKJV)

3 Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention.

I don't suggest this as a direct reason for the expression's existence but words that go together often stay together.

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    Umm, yes, I see what you are saying. But the earliest OED reference to spoiling for a fight is 1865.
    – WS2
    Nov 2, 2015 at 22:43
  • Maybe this should have been a comment. I have no solid evidence that there is a direct connection with the actual saying. I was simply suggesting the possibility of word-association in the mind of whoever invented the phrase. Nov 2, 2015 at 22:45
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This is a very common expression in Ireland, especially of the generation that I knew who were born around the 1920s. Perhaps lesser so as the following generations came to be.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if the origins came from there, as the earliest quotes in the US, seen from around 1858-1860s, would be quite soon after the great migration during the famine of the late 1840s.

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