Week of July 12, 2020



A short-tempered person is said to “fly off the handle” when they get upset. This pioneer-era term alludes to an ill-fitting metal axe head coming loose from its wooden handle while in use and going airborne, an obvious danger to those nearby.


Ballistics is the study of the natural flight paths of unpowered objects; the arcs of everything from stones to bullets and cannonballs. In the military sense, any self-propelled guided missile “goes ballistic” when it is no longer under control and propulsion, and so assumes a natural free-falling trajectory. However, long-range nuclear missiles such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are designed to fall naturally toward their targets in the final part of their flight, and it was during the American development of these weapons during the Cold War when “go ballistic” grew as a figurative expression.


Though bulls cannot actually see the color, the term “see red” to describe intense anger may have origins in bullfighting and the bullfighter’s red cape used to incite the bulls to charge. However, the color red has long been associated with high emotion, so the term’s origin may also be unrelated to bullfighting. Interestingly, some research indicates that angrier and more hostile people actually do see the color red more often.


Describing someone as “livid” also invokes a color. This dark bluish or greyish color more recently came to indicate the hue of an extremely angry individual.


In Greek mythology, unpunished wrongdoers made the Furies feel, well, furious. This trio of bat-winged, snake-haired goddesses dealt in vengeance, punishment and justice, and had particular disdain for those who lied, murdered, sinned against the gods, and children who disobeyed or killed their parents.


However, the ancients would not have understood some modern and technical idioms for intense anger. To “blow a fuse” is to burn out an electrical fuse by overloading it with current beyond its capacity. (The Rolling Stones famously sang about blowing a 50-amp fuse in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”)


Similarly, to “blow a gasket,” which acts as a seal between metal parts in an engine’s combustion chamber, would result in a steam or liquid release in early engines, and still means very expensive repairs in modern cars.