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In Australian English slang, the expression "to arc up" means "to become upset or angry" (Wikitionary), e.g. "he arced up at his boss after being denied a promised pay rise", or "it was just a joke, no need to arc up."

I am struggling to verify the etymology of this phrase. It seems opinions are divided: one camp imagines the expression to refer to an electrical arc as in welding or between two live wires held close, the other imagines an angry cat arching its back to look threatening.

One source writes:

I first heard this in Alice Springs in 1996. It was said to mean "losing your temper" or "getting defensive"... I think it might be related to the arch in a cat's back used to ward off an offending approacher.

While another says:

I think it comes from steel welders starting to weld so look away.

I had thought the etymology was evidently the electrical explanation, but I find the feline framing fitting, if fanciful. Trouble is, I have no idea how to even approach the problem of discovering its roots. To an extent, both are automatically "valid" if enough people subscribe to them, but it seems plausible that people were saying it and thinking about cats long before the idea of an electrical arc was part of the vernacular.

Any ideas on how to pin this one down?

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Being Australian, I'm probably not impartial, but I'm informed!

'Arcing up' being derived from a welder's arc seems entirely plausible. I'm not offering anything authoritative or empirical here, just adding to the balance of probabilities. I lean towards an explanation that has anything to do with cats. Here's why: we Australians seem to find mistreating - or at least annoying - cats to be amusing. Sad but true. Probably some deep psychological expression of our "Tall Poppy Syndrome". Anyway, I offer several enshrined Aussie idioms as evidence:

1) Let the cat out of the bag,

2) Not enough room to swing a cat,

3) Who's f$#%ing this cat?,

4) Barking up the wrong tree (alright, a long shot I know but it's pro dog),

5) Cat's whiskers/miaow/pyjamas (a condoned tall poppy),

6) There's more than one way to skin a cat,

7) Like herding cats (I defy anyone to find an animal that would hate this more),

8) Look what the cat dragged in

Ridiculing superiors on the sly is common in Australia, a kind of cultural passive aggressiveness. Calling someone's loss of temper 'arcing up' or a 'hissy fit' may indicate this.

Finally, 'arcing up' being a welder's arc just isn't funny. Calling an electrician "a sparky" is. The most popular Aussie idioms are the funny ones.

All of the above is merely my own conjecture. Discussion welcome!

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  • Interesting point! Perhaps not empirical, but I think this kind of cultural symbolism analysis is underrated and a fine way of thinking about the question. +1 from me. – Lemma Mar 6 '18 at 5:03
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Kel Richards’ Dictionary of Phrases and Fables defines its meanings and suggest the “welders” theory as its origin,

1) crying

2) launching a verbal attack

3) react angrily

Possibly the expression comes from welders starting to weld steel, the cry 'Arcing up!' being a warning to look away.

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  • That's the exact page I linked, you even used the same example that I included in my question! Also, it's not really a regionalism, it's used all over. – Lemma Feb 7 '18 at 8:09
  • @Lemma - no you didn't mention Kel Richards' Dictionary. I just wanted attract your attention that also Macquarie Dictionary comments are in favor of the same possible origin. – user 66974 Feb 7 '18 at 8:11
  • You did though, you just edited it out! You can't just change what you said and tell me I'm wrong! – Lemma Feb 7 '18 at 8:13
  • @yes I edited my answer since you don't seem to understand my point. – user 66974 Feb 7 '18 at 8:14

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