Saturday, May 22, 2010


Alright, I'll admit up front that I do know what a tantrum is, and this is somewhat in the way of a pretext. Martha Silano, after a bit of a struggle with technology, has succeeded in putting her latest collection of poems through the old word counter and  has come up with a list of the most prevalent words used within that collection. Turns out the top three are one, tantrum and America. So one of her followers has invited her readers to write a poem starting with those three words. Sounds intriguing and for any aspiring poets passing by, here's the link. I think Martha would be pleased to hear of anyone's efforts on this front.

But to stick to the purported mission of this blog, what is 'tantrum', etymologically speaking? If I were to go by the results of my own recent post on tantamount, we might guess that it means something like "so much rum". But as we are dealing, usually, with children, or at least a childish behavior, I don't think that can be right. Shall we see?

...Well, I've been a bit stymied on finding more information on that front. Pretty much everywhere I look, including the OED, the verdict is 'etymology unknown'. And I'm not even getting much in the way of the wayward theory, quite frankly. But as I'm not left quite emptyhanded, here are the findings so far: Some people have tried to link it to "tantra", which might sound plausible for a second, but "tantra" actually comes from the weaving world and means  "loom" or "warp" and so by extension comes to mean the groundwork or system or doctrine, which doesn't seem to be much help.

A book that Google has scanned, The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe by Charles MacKay, has some other leads. It  describes tantrum as "a fit of ill-temper" and then cites one Jamieson, with "tantrums, high airs". It then leads us to the idea of tantrums as "pranks, capers", which is said to have come from the tarantula dance. The dictionary goes on to suggest "See the account of the involuntary  frenzy and motions caused by the bite of the tarantula in the Penny Cyclopedia."

Uh, no thanks. Does anyone else feel that we are getting progressively further afield?

However, just at the end, there is one entry that intrigues me:

"Gaelic--Deann, hot, impetuous, fiery; trom, heavy: whence, deann-trom, a hot and heavy [fit of] passion."

Now this, if I was a betting sort, is where I'd lay my etymological money.

Remember--one trauma America. The rest is up to you. 


  1. A very interesting post! Thanks for musing on the mysterious origins of tantrum. I might have to take up Rob's challenge and write the One America Tantrum Poem.

  2. 'Tantrum' is well established in Scots, northern English dialects and Ulster-Scots with 2 meanings: a fit of temper (as in Std. Eng.), and a whim. So say the Scots and Ulster-Scots dictionaries:

    Dictionary of the Scots Language:

    TANTRUM, noun. Scots usages, also in English dialect: affected airs, palavers (Sc. 1808 Jam., I.Sc., Ags. 1972), “foolish fancies” (Gall. 1824 MacTaggart Gallov. Encycl. 444). The Sc. meanings imply whims or vagaries rather than fits of bad temper.
    DANDRUM, n. “A whim; a freak” (Bnff. 1866 Gregor D. Bnff. 222; Bnff.2, Abd.9 1939). Also found in w.Yks. dial. (E.D.D.). [Voiced variant of TANTRUM.]

    Concise Ulster Dictionary:

    TANTRUM, also TANTHRUM, noun, 1. A tantrum, a display of petulance. 2. A whim, a vagary.
    TANTRAVITUS, noun: a temper [apparently a jocular extension of TANTRUM in Co. Antrim]

    The variant 'DANDRUM' is new to me and seems to go along with your Gaelic etymology. (The quote from Jamieson is from an early Scots (not Scots Gaelic) dictionary, but the etymological notes from Mackay seem perfectly valid.

  3. Well, I wish you would, Martha. Although apparently you could be coasting on what you've already written at this point...

  4. Philip, yes, the Gaelic etymology makes perfect sense to me, though obviously I really know nothing about the linguistic aspects of anything. It's very curious that most of the commentary is etymology unknown. Period. They don't even want to suggest an informed possibility.

    I do like tanthrum and dandrum as variants. And palaver is a great word...Hmm.

  5. I would give some credit to the Tarantula origin. The name of the dance itself comes from the jerking movements supposedly made by those bitten by the spider.
    Tarantismo was the word for the condition of those afflicted by hysteric/epileptic fits, again because folk wisdom assumed it came from the spider's bite.
    A tarantolato is someone who behaves as if he had been bitten by a tarantula - basically, someone who's having a tantrum.
    These usages are attested as early as the Middle Ages in parts of Italy - originally the term Tarantola did not refer to the New World's spiders we're familiar with, but to Italian varieties (the word comes from the city of Taranto)- and they may have spread.

  6. It sounds possible, except the order of the consonants doesn't work, and that's the kind of thing it seems would. But then, I don't know enough about what happens to words as they are borrowed and adapted to know what's likely and what isn't.

    All the associative spider words are fascinating in any case. And does this make Quentin Tarantino a descendent of Taranto, or merely a descendent of people given to hysteric fits? Because the last would explain so much...

  7. As it is 7 years bad luck to kill spider etymology, (not to mention Marco's shot across the bows), it is worth putting the Gaelic etymology to the test.
    I can't find the Gaelic equivalent words suggested in my Irish Gaelic dictionaries, the nearest being the adjective 'tintri' for 'hot-tempered' or 'fiery'. Many Irish words have a medieval Latin etymology anyway. The 'deann-trom' suggestion is presumably Scots Gaelic, I don't know, so maybe the question of 'original' source is still wide open

  8. Well, I plugged "deann trom" into Google and guess what? The first link up was to this very blog, followed by a second link to the source I cited. Oh, dear. We are not going to get very far at this rate, are we? And it would certainly be a big mistake if anyone were to take this blog to be an authoritative source on anything.

    That said, though, when I plugged in "deann" and "trom" separately, they did seem to match up with the MacKay logic, with "deann" meaning "force, rush, haste, speed", and "trom" meaning "heavy" and having the advantage of combining with other words in many instances, such as, apparently, "cudrom" or "cudthrom" for "weight"--though really con-trom or "co-weight".

    So, yes, I still like this hypothesis. But no, it's not going to be decided on this blog, or, very possibly, ever.

  9. Nice!!

    I have no idea what you guys are talking about for the most part, but after dealing with my kids I'm going with the tarantula theory.

  10. The Buddhist concept of suffering is the sensation we get when we don't get what we want or we get what we don't want. This is quintessentially a tantrum. Any possible info European linguistic links to

    1. Beth, I either missed this or thought I had responded to it when you wrote it, but in any case, it seems that tantra is word that comes out of weaving and is apparently unrelated to tantrum.

  11. I came into this post by looking up the etymology of tantrum.
    I don't know much of linguistics, but I can tell that the "tarantismo" phenomenon, while peculiar of southern Italy (the last cases were documented by anthropologist De Martino in the 50's or 60's; the taranta dance is still pretty popular, also among foreign tourists), was widely known and discussed in Europe in the 17th and 18th century.

  12. Cachorro, happy to see an intelligent comment that is not spam on this older post. I'm still not sure whether it is the Gaelic or the Italian that we should look toward, but I am happy to know of the dance.

  13. Hmmm, I came to this post while looking into the etymology and alternative spellings of "cudrom/cudthrom" (the Scottish Gaelic for "weight" or "emphasis") and then put "deann" into, which has a contemporary dictionary and the classic work of Gaelic lexicography, Dwelly's. No sign of "deann" being linked with "trom" at all. Indeed, no mention of "fiery" or "hot" in the meaning. According to Dwelly it means "Force. 2 Haste, velocity, hurry, speed. 3 Particle, very small quantity of anything comminuted. 4 Rush or dash, rapid motion." That might tend to push you towards the Italian as a source. The sound of "deann" (which you can hear at this link: doesn't quite fit either.

  14. Thanks for the suggestions here, Andrew. I have to admit that it's been so long since I wrote this up that I had to reread my post just to see where I left it. Although I couldn't find that translation sound on the faclair post I did look it up elsewhere just now, and you're right it doesn't sound much like "tan". Yes, maybe the Italian, but I have to admit that for a word which now conjures up such a definite meaning its roots remain a little shadowy.