I was reading a book and couldn't understand the meaning of this:

After all, how many times had her father complained that she was full of more spit and vinegar than most boys?

I searched, but I could only find mixed opinions that it could be both offensive and non-offensive meanings.

The only trustful source I found was on Oxford dictionary as "agressive energy". Can anyone explain it better? I want to grasp the full meaning of it. Examples would be good too.

PS: I'm not a English native speaker

  • 4
    The typical, or more common, idiom, is full of piss and vinegar (that is, piss rather than spit). I imagine the spit variant arose during a more conservative time. In contemporary America, at least, neither form would be likely to cause offense, at all. Though using it would mark you as a bit old-fashioned (because on the whole, the idiom's usage has all but faded). It does mean "full of energy" or "rowdy". Here's one explaination at the Phrase Finder.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 7, 2016 at 17:28
  • 1
    BTW, if you're learning English as a foreign language, you might also enjoy our sister site, English Language Learners.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 7, 2016 at 17:29
  • So the upshot of Dan Bron's excellent answer is that "piss and vinegar" means just what you said: "aggressive energy." And in the example you cite, it means it in a positive way, as it is usually used today. It's hard to explain idioms because they are expressions that come about organically, as the explanation Dan's citation tried to decipher.
    – terpy
    Jun 7, 2016 at 18:22
  • It's an old idiom (with the two indicated forms) which suggests that the person has a spirited personality and is not apt to be passive and silent when an affront is sensed. Probably more often used of women/girls than men/boys, as it suggests that the person is not always "ladylike".
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 7, 2016 at 18:22

6 Answers 6


Apparently this phrase has several origins and forms

Vinegar has been in the language as the name of the familiar liquid since the 12th century. During the 1920s vinegar was used to mean vitality and energy and that's the meaning in 'piss and vinegar' and 'pep and vinegar'. At that time many phrases indicating a general perkiness and vitality entered the language, often for no other reason than linguistic exuberance. It's most likely that the phrase originated around then, possibly as an adaptation of the existing 'vig and vigour', which means much the same.

Spit and vinegar seems like someone did not know that 'pep' could be substituted for 'piss'.


It’s not generally considered an offensive remark. It’s just used to remark on enthusiastic energy and vitality. In the South, it is still used frequently. If it is intended to have a negative connotation, you would pick that up by the tone of voice, usually delivered in a sarcastic manner.


John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) lists the phrase (in a very brief entry) as "piss and vinegar":

piss and vinegar aggressive energy

The same entry (with an occurrence date appears in John Ayto & John Simpson, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992):

piss and vinegar aggressive energy. 1942–.

A Google Books search finds instances of "piss and vinegar" from 1936 and of "spit and vinegar" from 1960. The earliest match for "piss and vinegar" is from Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1936):

"Have you thought of the night, now, in other times, in foreign countries—in Paris? When the streets were gall high with things you wouldn't have done for a dare's sake, and the way it was then; with the pheasants' necks and the goslings' beaks dangling against the hocks of the gallants, and not a pavement in the place, and everything gutters for miles and miles, and a stench to it that plucked you by the nostrils and you were twenty leagues out!The criers telling the price of wine to such effect that the dawn saw good clerks full of piss and vinegar, and blood-letting in side streets where some wild princess in a night-shift of velvet howled under a leech; not to mention the palaces of Nymphenburg echoing back to Vienna with the night trip of late kings letting water into plush cans and fine woodwork!

Also, from Robert Penn Warren, "The Ballad of Billie Potts," in Partisan Review (spring 1943) [combined snippets]:

Little Billie was full of piss and vinegar / And full of sap as a maple tree / And full of tricks as a lop-eared pup, / So one night when the runner didn't show up, / Big Billie called Little and said, "Saddle up," / And nodded toward the man was taking his sup / With his belt unlatched and his feet to the fire.

The earliest Google Books match for "spit and vinegar" that a search returned was from "Noah, His Wife, and the Devil," in Memoirs of the American Folklore Society, issue 13 (1960):

Throughout the play the children are full of spit and vinegar and malice, and they show their lack of balance, their youthful hubris, in the final scene, where they march to opposite corners of the world yelling bad names at one another— Ham is called nigger, Shem a chink, and Japheth a paleface. They very much recall some of the dangers of our regressive and adolescent epoch in history.

Evidently, "spit and vinegar" is a tidied-up variant on "piss and vinegar"—and indeed, Robert Penn Warren, writing to a poetry anthologist in July 1945, observes that he bowdlerized his own wording with "Steam and vinegar" in order to get it published in the Vanderbilt Miscellany.

I was interested to find in Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, second edition (1938) a seemingly independently derived eighteenth-century slang term: vinegar-pisser:

pisser, vinegar-. A niggard; miser: coll[oquial]: C. 18–2[0].? (in C. 17) a sour fellow: cf. Anon.'s 2nd return from Parnassus, 1602, 'They are pestilent fellowes, they speake nothing but bodkins, and pisse vinegar.' (O.E.D.)

In this case the vinegar piss is a sign not of aggressiveness looking for an outlet but of miserliness seeking to withhold everything from the surrounding world.

  • Piss and vinegar don't evoke a sense of aggression or energy to me. Or rather, those might be misdirections or euphemisms for something. If it is indeed used for enthusiasm or vitality, I don't think I could ever get used to that. To me it just means sour or mean-spirited.
    – Mitch
    Apr 16, 2019 at 13:23

If you're full of piss and vinegar, then you're just a little ornery! My uncle used to tell me that when I was a little girl and he always followed that up with rubbing his knuckles on the top of my head! Good old memories!

  • This would benefit from citing an authoritative source. Please take a moment to tour the site, and welcome.
    – livresque
    Oct 13, 2021 at 22:16

My dad has always told me that I was spit & vinegar- a girl who can do anything a man can do, doesn’t need to be treated like a princess. And woman who will hold her own and take care of business for herself. A woman who may be soft on the inside but is tough enough on the outside to overcome adversity in her path without fear of breaking a nail, so to speak


I am old enough to remember the phrase. I heard it in the south. It was used by our elders when we were young and "feeling our oats". That's another old term I don't hear anymore. It meant being still young and maybe spirited (aggressive energy" as in the above post.


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