I can't seem to find any definite earliest example of this expression, or a reason why "hissy" was chosen to describe a tantrum. Does anyone hiss when they are angry? When and why was the phrase coined?
The OED included hissy fit in their entry for hissy, writing:
hissy fit n. chiefly U.S. a fit of temper, an angry outburst, a tantrum.
1967 in Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. (1991) II. 1021/2 Pitched a hissy-fit.
1978 A. Maupin Tales of City 5 When I told my mom I was moving to San Francisco, she had an absolute hissy-fit!
1981 F. Flagg Coming Attractions 21 Momma always looks like she is on the verge of a hissy fit, but that's mainly because when she was eighteen, she stuck her head in a gas oven looking at some biscuits and blew her eyebrows off.
1999 Courier-Mail (Brisbane) 22 Nov. 24/8 Elton John threw a hissy fit at Winnipeg Airport, Canada, after customs officers took almost two hours to clear his five-person entourage.
The 1967 usage is the first recorded usage that they give, so the phrase is relatively new. They suggest that this use of hissy is tied to hysterics, and they add:
Also 19– hissie, hussy, huzzy.
U.S. [Perhaps influenced by hysteric n.] = hissy fit n. at Additions.
1934 Amer. Speech 9 71 Hissy is probably provincial slang. I have heard it for eight or ten years. He threw a hissy or He had a hissy means that a person in question was very disturbed and very angry.
1949 Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc.xi. 7 She had a hissy when I told her she couldn't go.
1973 N.Y. Times 13 July 25, I wasn't all that keen about him riding bulls, but he could do a good job so I never throwed a hissy about it.
1992 C. McCarthy All Pretty Horses (1993) i. 72 Rawlins will pitch a pure hissy when he sees you, he said.
It seems possible that hissy came first--someone would go into hysterics and throw a tantrum if they didn't get their way. This eventually changed to become a hissy fit, or a "fit of hysterics". Note that there isn't a firm indication of origins, but this is the theory presented by the OED.
There's only snippets so it's not possible to verify, but Google Books has some earlier references than the OED's 1967.
1943's The Business of Getting Well by Marshall Sprague:
Cora, the cleaning woman, told me that he has "a reg'lar oF hissy-fit" whenever she tries to sweep under his furniture. It seems that, back in the night club, sweeping under the furniture was bad form. A fellow never knew whom he'd find ...
1959's The Numbers of Our Days: a novel by Francis Irby Gwaltney:
1966's The Sum and Total of Now: a novel by Don Robertson:
A second time:
And a third time:
It would be worth seeing whether the expression originates in the Scandinavian Midwest. See Einar Haugen's Norwegian English Dictionary under "hissig" (the g at the end of the word is silent):
1 ardent, eager, keen... 2 angry, irascible, quick-tempered: bli h- lose one's temper, (pop.) fly off the handle. 3 intense, violent (e.g. discussion, battle). 4 inflamed, irritated (e.g. boil).
Here's a possible origin:
The allusion in this expression may be to the hissing and spluttering of such an outburst, or it may simply be a contraction of "hysterical".
Hissy fit could come from Hysterical, where hysteria was associated with women who had a hysterectomy and any fits of 'craziness' (for lack of a better term) were attributed to to the hysterectomy. Hence hissy fit and hence its association with women. (sourced from an undisclosed episode of QI, BBC.co.uk)
The general consensus both here and on the Internet at large is that "nobody knows" the origin for certain, but wisegeek.com presents a good summary of the three main theories...
Allusion to how cats (and catty women) react when angry - hissing, baring claws, etc.
Shortened from hysterical - deriving from or affected by uncontrolled extreme emotion.
Shortened from histrionics - exaggerated dramatic behavior designed to attract attention.
Most likely one of those really did occur first, and thus could be said to be the "original". But I think for a term like this to gain and retain currency it probably gets some input from all three on an ongoing basis. Personally, I put more weight on histrionics. It's the least common term - but to those familiar with it, the "attention-seeking" connotations should seem particularly apposite.
During the American Revolution the British hired mercenaries from Germany and Prussia to fight. These mercenaries came to be know as Hessians.
There were some skirmishes between the Hessians and the rough hewn soldiers of the Appalachian region, most of whom were of Scottish or Irish descent, and when one of the Hessians was captured in battle they became very animated and cursed and stomped around speaking in a very animated manner in their native German dialect, much to the entertainment of the mountain men soldiers. The mountain men came to refer to these histrionic displays as a Hesse or Hissy fit.
If you can find corroboration for this theory you are a better researcher than I, but that is the story that was passed down though my family though the generations.
When I was about ten (i.e. about 1970) I used this expression. My father took me aside and explained that it was not a proper one to use in polite company, as the "hissing" referred to is actually the sound produced by involuntary voiding of liquified bowel contents and urine. In other words, the person throwing the fit has become so distraught as to cause his body to produce this instinctive response. I have not seen this explanation anywhere else, but it is the one I received.