0

The informal AmE term worrywart refers to:

a person who tends to dwell unduly on difficulty or troubles.

but according to a few sources the original meaning of the word was actually its opposite:

Worrywart is an American term which comes from a comic strip character named Worry Wart which ran from the 1920s through the 1970s. Originally, worrywart meant someone who pesters others, but in time it came to mean someone who frets over the possibility of trouble.(The Grammarist)

And

Worry Wart was a generic nickname or insult for any character who caused others to worry, which is the inverse of the current colloquial meaning. (Etymonline)

GDoS gives an example of its current meaning from the early 40s, from which we can assume that the semantic change probably started in those years.

  1. (US) a pathological worrier.
  • 1943 [US] W. Guthrie Bound for Glory (1969) 58: Okay! Worry Wart, you.

What may have caused this considerable shift in meaning of worrywart?

1
  • 1
    I'm not convinced it's a significant shift in meaning. One definition is someone who worries a lot, especially about unimportant things and in a way that annoys other people. The simple derived noun worrier can mean a person who worries about things AND / OR a person who worries other people (both or either may apply in any given case). Personally, I tend to think of a worrywart as someone whose worrying irritates / inconveniences me, but a worryguts is just a fretful person (whose angst doesn't really concern or bother me; that's their problem). Jan 8, 2023 at 17:16

1 Answer 1

1

The word "wart" had an origin earlier than the comic strip: OED

b. colloquial. An obnoxious or objectionable person.

1896 G. Ade Artie i. 5 There they was, holdin' to this wart.

The attributive "worry" seems to have been added for effect. The question then becomes, "when did the transitive version of "worry" in the sense of "bothering/irritating someone" start to have that meaning?

To worry is a very old verb that, originally, meant to strangle, or choke

c725 Corpus Gloss. S 558 St[r]angulat, wyrgeð uel smorað.

It then exteneded to encompass any fatal damage to the throat (usually dogs worrying sheep) but it had weakened in meaning by the 17th century(OED)

  1. In lighter sense: To vex, distress, or persecute by inconsiderate or importunate behaviour; to plague or pester with reiterated demands, requests, or the like.

1671 J. Milton Samson Agonistes 906 Witness when I was worried with thy peals.

This is the sense of the comic strip "Worry Wart".

In the intransitive use, it was not until the mid-19th century that it is recorded:

7c. intransitive (for reflexive). To give way to anxiety or mental disquietude. ...

1860 J. E. Worcester Dict. Eng. Lang. Worry v.n., to indulge in idle complaining; to fret; to be troubled. (Colloquial.) Roget.

1861 J. G. Holland Lessons in Life xiii. 181 When she can find nothing to do, then she worries.

This shows that at the time of the comic strip hero, both meanings were possible, and both meanings are possible now.

The word itself "worry-wart" in the sense of someone who is neurotic about small things is first recoreded in 1956:

OED

worry wart n. colloquial (chiefly U.S.) an inveterate worrier, one who frets unnecessarily.

1956 I. Belknap Human Probl. of State Mental Hosp. x. 177 The persevering, nagging delusional group—who were termed ‘worry warts’, ‘nuisances’, ‘bird dogs’, in the attendants' slang.

I note that there is no note of the sense of an objectionable person who causes worry in others in the OED, (and I have never heard of it either) and whereas, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, I therefore suggest that this is a failed, restricted, or ephemeral coinage.

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.