18

According to the “Grammarist” the idiomatic expression “short fuse” is just a few decades old:

The idiom “have a short fuse” meaning to anger quickly, comes from the fuse used to set off explosives such as dynamite or firecrackers. An explosive item with a short fuse will blow up quickly, perhaps prematurely. The phrase have a short fuse became popular in the mid-twentieth century.

and also Dictionary.com states that the expression short fuse was

First recorded in 1965–70

Actually the term “fuse” has a much older origin as Macmillan Dictionary shows:

The word fuse comes from the Latin word ‘fusus’ meaning ‘spindle’. It first came into use sometime in the 1640s to describe the tubes used to explode a device like a bomb.

So what actually made the figurative usage of “short fuse” popular in the mid 20th century? (A movie or news items popular at that time, or else.)

7
  • 7
    Published 1930, in reporting a series of mining accidents, many were caused by using too short a fuse.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 7:16
  • 2
    @user66974, I couldn't give an authoritative explanation, but I suspect it would have something to do with military training and experience (such as with grenades and similar timed-explosion munitions) becoming widespread amongst the population.
    – Steve
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 12:27
  • 2
    "... sparked...". Hehe.
    – M-Pixel
    Commented May 31, 2022 at 20:06
  • 1
    I still don't see that original question has been answered: Why did the figurative use of "short-fuse" explode in the 1960s? When I found the expression "far-out" used several times in the novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, I was surprised. I thought it was minted in the 1960s, but Maggie was published in 1893, and the expression was around long before that. However, that it was as common in the Sixties as bell-bottoms is undeniable. TBC.
    – Zan700
    Commented May 31, 2022 at 22:40
  • 1
    Common too were "heavy," "mellow," "bummer," "dig it," "a gas," all short figurative expressions that displaced lengthier explanations and descriptions. Perhaps everyone was too stoned to say much more. If "short-fuse" was rife in those days, I'd seek an explanation in the vocabulary fashion of those times.
    – Zan700
    Commented May 31, 2022 at 22:41

6 Answers 6

9

I found two earlier metaphorical usages of short fuse both from the early 1960s

The first is from the novel, The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison, first printed in 1961.

enter image description here

He had a short fuse and it took him a moment to get his temper back under control. source

Wikipedia says that the author penned a total of twelve books in the Stainless Steel Rat series.

The second earliest recorded instance is from the 1963 POW novel, Yanks Don't Cry, written by Martin Boyle.

His expression at this point should have been the tip-off that he had a short fuse, but still we didn't move. The head bat-wielder looked up at Mabel and got the go-ahead nod. Without another word he and his cohorts went to work on us.

enter image description here

It might have been a rather successful novel because it was reviewed by the New York Times in August 18, 1963.

YANKS DON'T CRY. Martin Boyle. (Bernard Geis Associates. $4.95.)--In this personal narrative, Martin Boyle, a former Marine, has written a warm, defiant, blunt, occasionally coarse, often hilarious and sometimes glorious account of his 44 months as a prisoner-of-war in Japan.

Digging deeper, it seems clear that the expression was well-known long before the 1960s.

From a 1949 document, American Correctional Association, we have the following

Problems of the junior camp boy are further complicated because he has a short fuse and is emotionally explosive. His emotional disturbance seems deeper than the older boy in senior camp. His delinquency patterns have been cut at a younger age while he is experiencing the processes of puberty and adolescence.

What was the most salient factor that led to the coinage?

I suggest it was the thousands of mining accidents that occurred at the turn of the 20th century. Metal and coal mines that exploded, workers who went back too soon to check why the detonator hadn't exploded and tragically lost their lives or were permanently maimed.

The following examples show that "a short fuse" was associated with danger, violence, disaster, unpredictability, and more often than not death. It explains that there was not a single incident, battle, news item, book, story, or movie line that helped "popularized" the expression.

  • Test pieces from the same roll of fuse revealed a uniform burning rate, and it is believed that the accident was caused by a short fuse and not by a rapidly burning one. (1943)

  • He filed claim for compensation and on January 29 1930, the compensation commission denied the claim on the ground that “he was at the time of the injury using a short fuse in violation of the mining laws of West Virginia.” (1933)

  • It is présured that one miner lost his life from a premature explosion caused by a short fuse or a shortened igniter which fired the charge before he could get out of the room. Six persons were killed when several boxes of explosives detonated. (1931)

  • Miner had prepared two 30-inch charges of black blasting powder. Victims were struck by flying coal. Possibly short fuse or too early ignition with means of lighting fuse. (1928)

  • In handling fuse do not bend it any more than is necessary. Twisting or bending fuse is liable to damage it and may result in a delayed blast. The fuse should always be cut long enough to allow the man firing the blast to get to a safe place. It is dangerous to attempt to hasten an explosion by using a short fuse. (1914)

enter image description here

The Prevention of Accidents from Explosives in Metal Mining

2
  • 1
    I'm not sure if the literal uses of "short fuse" (all the mining quotes) are relevant to this question.
    – Marthaª
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 14:53
  • 6
    @Marthaª The examples show that "a short fuse" was associated with danger, extreme violence, disasters, unpredictability, and more often than not death. It explains that there was not a single news item, book, story, or movie line that "popularized" the idiom.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 14:58
38

"Short fuse" was used metaphorically before the 60s

Here's an example that seems to be exactly matching the modern sense:

The Navy must needs cross the water and protect our interest, hence the need of educated officers, who know law and diplomacy as well as fighting: and every time some little hot headed, short fused Govt down in South America gets on a rampage and threatens to trouble our interests, we send a vessel, whose officers are competent to negotiate, and failing satisfactory results, they have with them the guns and the "men behind the guns" to make our flag respected. — Glimpses of the nation's struggle (1909)

Some examples are a bit further away in meaning:

His humor, so unique, so short fused, the effect was similar to the lighting of a giant cracker, the explosion was instantaneous. — Transactions of the Iowa State Horticultural Society (1916)

In Ladies' Home Journal (February 1919), I found the following barely legible text:

Billy decided to turn uptown on Second. It was one of his short-fuse decisions.

And another, more deep in metaphor:

It would have been of no use to short-fuse the professor's conclusion and hand it back to blow him up. — Spirit Life (1920)

And yet another, probably closer to the modern meaning:

THEY probably will not ask the short-fuse committee to even advise them when the time comes? — The Chicago Banker (July 1923)

Not even anger here:

just as others are born with a quick temper, a short-fused sexuality, or a self-starting sense of fright — Enjoyment of Laughter (1936)

By 1949, there are many examples in the modern sense:

  • Tempers, however, were short-fused aboard the Delta — Black Falcon

  • The most recent episode had as its principal actor a short-fused suspector — Flying

  • John could be fretful and short-fused, impatient or resentful — Caribbean Quarterly

Literal usage (especially early on) was about dynamite (usually used for mining) and shells used in war.

1
  • 6
    I think this is the best answer. The metaphor likely goes back even further, to the fuses used in artillery pieces, but the origin is certainly older than other answers have suggested.
    – Robusto
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 14:03
6

As others have pointed out, the phrase existed before then. The analogy is to a bomb (as the angry person will "blow up" when his patience is exhausted. The early 1960s, though, was early-mid cold war, and lots of cartoons and comedy bits showed nefarious Soviet agents carrying or planting stereotypical, black, round bombs with visible gunpower-string type fuses.

These are not as good as today's time bombs, but the detonation time could be adjusted by shortening or lengthening the fuse, requiring less or more burning time before the explosion--by which point you'd ideally be well clear at the area. Cut the fuse too short and you'll be caught in the subsequent explosion--just as if you antagonize a person with a "short fuse."

3

This is an interesting question because it has not only a semantic component, but also a historical one.

There is a highly significant extract from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory that I feel has a bearing on the matter. It reads:

Briefly, the Explosives Unit emerged from — we are talking about the mid - 1960's to late 1960's emerged from what was referred to as the Spectrographic Unit and the old Firearms and Toolmarks Unit.

This extracts points to the fact that during the 1960s, there was a marked increase in the production of explosives. This may have been brought on by the formation of the Explosives Unit. The noteworthy formation of this unit may have resulted in a general increase of attention in any sort of thing that could be detonated, or fired-off. This may have thus given rise to the heightened use of the expression "short fuse".

It is also of note that it was in the 1960s that the army invented plastic explosives, which, further to my point, may have caused greater awareness of explosives in society.

2
  • I can't see how a change in the internal organisation of the FBI necessarily denotes that there was "a marked increase in the production of explosives". Nor do I see how that relates to the heightened use of the expression "short fuse". None of these historic details seem to be related to the figurative use of the term "short fuse". Commented May 31, 2022 at 21:26
  • @KillingTime Not only the FBI, but also the army Commented May 31, 2022 at 21:48
-3

According to the OED, the phrase is very recent. It was first recorded in 1968:

short fuse n. U.S. slang a quick temper.

1968 N.Y. Times 13 Oct. iv. 10 Tully, a fellow notorious around Sausalito for his short fuse.

The association with explosives is therefore clear. Nobody would have thought that it had anything to do with a Roman spindle.

(One can go back too far looking for origins.)

4
  • 7
    The OED doesn't actually say that the expression was first recorded in 1968. That's just the date of the first quotation they provide as an example of usage. OED quotations are not etymological histories.
    – barbecue
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 15:47
  • 1
    The date given in the OED is the date it was first recorded in print as far as the OED is aware. The OED has an antedating page: If you know an earlier record, they will include it in the next revision of the entry. The OED does contain an etymological history for each main entry.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 17:56
  • I don't see any etymology for "short fuse" in the current OED. I only see a couple of quotations. Can you provide a link?
    – barbecue
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 18:54
  • 2
    The OED does try to find the oldest (and, in some cases) newest usages of words, so I submitted this very page as an antedating update! Commented May 30, 2022 at 22:13
-5

It comes from the fuse on an explosive device such as a stick of dynamite: the shorter the fuse, the sooner it explodes.

My Collins iPhone dictionary has:

  1. A train of combustible material in a waterproof covering used with a detonator to initiate an explosion.

What made it popular? Tom and Jerry cartoons, perhaps.

9
  • 3
    Sorry, but what a “short fuse” refers to is explained in the question. The question is: where does its figurative usage come from? A movie, a book? Why did “short fuse” became popular in those years?
    – user 66974
    Commented May 29, 2022 at 19:33
  • 4
    Thanks for the suggestion, but answers have to be supported by evidence as you know.
    – user 66974
    Commented May 29, 2022 at 19:35
  • 3
    @user66974 — OK. Well not OK, because there’s no evidence for the origin of that expression. But it fits with the historical period, which I lived through. Post-war, with recent memories of munitions, combined with coloured cartoon animations of a particular type. I assume you’ve tried Google ngram.
    – David
    Commented May 29, 2022 at 19:41
  • 3
    Apart from actual munitions, most people have experience of fireworks. The comparison of an explosive person to a firecracker is pretty obvious. Commented May 29, 2022 at 20:49
  • 8
    Tom and Jerry cartoons rarely had episodes of bombs with short fuses, it's more likely Wile E Coyote and the classic image of a bomb with a very short fuse
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 9:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.