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What is a Hissy Fit?

A hissy fit is an emotional outburst, often characterized by tantrums, crying, and irrational behavior, typically in response to frustration or disappointment. It's a colloquial term that captures the intensity of the moment, usually seen in children but not exclusive to them. Ever witnessed one or, dare we say, thrown one yourself? Let's explore what triggers these dramatic displays.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

While a three-year-old child's irrational overreaction to a situation might be considered a temper tantrum, a similar response from an adult could earn the proper description "hissy fit." This is somewhat similar to a conniption fit or a tantrum, but is generally applied to someone who has already demonstrated diva-like or high-strung behavior. A nervous bride might have a hissy fit after being told the caterer has abandoned his post, for instance. While the situation may still be under control, the bride may have a temporary emotional outburst triggered by a combination of stress, pressure and nerves. The term is almost exclusively ascribed to women, although some men have been known to have similar over-the-top reactions to distressing news.

The origin of the term is a bit of a mystery, although there are a few working theories. Some believe it was inspired by the sudden and ferocious hissing sounds a cat produces when cornered or confronted by a rival. The hissing might be accompanied by a convincing, if largely ineffectual, display of bared teeth and claws. A person having a hissy fit might also affect such a provocative pose and display flashes of anger. There's little historical evidence to back up this theory, but the comparison between a cornered animal and a person having a tantrum is often accurate.

A hissy fit can include flashes of anger.
A hissy fit can include flashes of anger.

Another theory is that the "hissy" is derived from the word "hysterical," which originally applied to irrational behavior displayed by women. Certainly a person in the throws of a hissy fit does display overly emotional or hysterical behavior, so the connection between the words does sound plausible. The term is considered to be regional, however, so if it is indeed slang for a hysterical outburst, it did not become universally popular.

Most toddlers throw temper tantrums because they feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
Most toddlers throw temper tantrums because they feel frustrated or overwhelmed.

There is also the possibility that a hissy fit is derived from the same root as "histrionics," which describes dramatic behavior considered inappropriate for the circumstances. People who suffer from histrionic personality disorder, for example, may display the same lack of emotional control as someone having this type of fit. It's possible that the term became shorthand for a histrionic outburst, although it's not clear whether or not a complex term such as "histrionics" would have made it into the popular vernacular.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular LanguageHumanities contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular LanguageHumanities contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon295877

When my father was a young man, an old ranch hand from Montana told him that it referred to a traumatized horse. The horse would gallop about while having a severe case of diarrhea. Naturally, the fecal matter would get flung about.

anon174403

Maybe it comes from the word "Hussy" since your definition discusses that this is frequently used for females.

anon29997

A barnyard goose hisses at you when it feels threatened or it just wants to chase you away.

anon15280

When I was a young teen in the '60s in Sydney, Australia, we used the term in the expression 'don't throw a histy fit' (not sure of the spelling as it was only ever spoken slang) only later replaced by the term 'hissy fit'. I always took it to be slang for hysterics or histrionics or something in between. - I.Ison

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    • A hissy fit can include flashes of anger.
      By: Scott Griessel
      A hissy fit can include flashes of anger.
    • Most toddlers throw temper tantrums because they feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
      By: Pix by Marti
      Most toddlers throw temper tantrums because they feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
    • Someone might throw a hissy fit if people around them don't follow expected behaviors.
      By: JackF
      Someone might throw a hissy fit if people around them don't follow expected behaviors.
    • A child may behave aggressively toward siblings during a temper tantrum.
      By: Aliaksei Lasevich
      A child may behave aggressively toward siblings during a temper tantrum.
    • Wedding day stress might cause a bride to throw a hissy fit.
      By: tomas del amo
      Wedding day stress might cause a bride to throw a hissy fit.