We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What Does "Hit the Fan" Mean?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
Our promise to you
Language & Humanities is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At Language & Humanities, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

"To hit the fan" is an idiomatic American English expression that means "to go completely or chaotically wrong." The saying relies on an evocative visual metaphor involving the interaction between a thrown object and the whirling blades of a fan. It is usually used to identify the point at which a situation takes a catastrophic turn; it's commonly used in phrases like "and that's when it hit the fan." The most common use of the term involves profane slang for feces, creating an uncomfortably vivid visual metaphor that leaves the listener in no doubt as to the messy and unpleasant nature of the situation.

The earliest recorded uses of "to hit the fan" date from the 1940s, although some authorities claim that the usage dates back to the 1930s. One early version, "when the soup hit the fan," relies on the visual image a fan spraying soup across a startled group to evoke a sudden descent into chaos. The vulgar version of the expression is documented as early as 1967, but may have been in use even longer. Lexicographers can often be reluctant to document profanity, meaning that the origins of foul language are often harder to trace than those of more socially-acceptable expressions.

Like many successful expressions, "to hit the fan" relies on its colorful imagery to communicate its meaning. Even though it refers to a circumstance most people have been fortunate enough not to experience, the image is a good visual shorthand for total chaos. Additionally, the metaphor conveys more information, in that the sudden shift from peace to panic comes from the interaction between an existing situation (the spinning blades of the fan) and a malicious or careless act (the actions of whoever threw something into the fan blades). The resulting catastrophe is thus the result both inevitable and the result of human negligence or stupidity.

The expression "all hell breaks loose" has a similar meaning to that of the phrase "To hit the fan." These are characteristically colorful pieces from the American vernacular which have spread to other branches of English. The predominant version of the expression is probably the vulgar version, which has the inventive and vigorous characteristics of great slang. Its vulgarity, however, means that the more general expression discussed here is probably more widely used in print. This is the case with a number of slang expressions.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Link to Sources
Discussion Comments
By Ruggercat68 — On May 20, 2014

I can't think that I've ever been in a situation where anything has actually hit a fan. I can see where it would be one unholy mess, but a lot of things would have to go wrong in the right order to create it. I wonder how many times in history a nasty substance has actually hit a high-speed fan and caused widespread damage.

By Cageybird — On May 19, 2014

I have always heard the rude version of this saying, but I'll clean it up whenever I'm around sensitive ears. I've had situations at work that were already headed in a bad direction, but then something devastating will happen. The boss will come back early and find out we messed up a large order, for example. That's when the situation will "hit the fan". From that point on, we're all on clean-up detail.

Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

Language & Humanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.