Q From Stephen Wilder: Do you have anything on the origins of fit to be tied?
A A. Just a few notes and comments ...
It’s a puzzling slang expression, largely because it’s hard to be sure which of the many adjectival senses of fit is appearing here. It isn’t the one that means in good physical condition (“are you feeling fit?”), nor being sufficiently skilled or competent to take on a task (“it’s all she’s fit for”), nor matching accepted social standards (“a fit subject for discussion”), nor deserving or worthy (“a book fit to be read”), least of all the mainly British slang sense of being sexually attractive (“she’s fit!”).
All these go back to the first sense of fit in English in the fourteenth century of a thing that’s well adapted or suitable. It’s probably from the Middle Dutch fitten, which is related to the Old Norse fitja, to knit. If Norse knitting came out right, it was presumably fit for purpose.
We have several similar expressions to yours in the language, in all of which fit has rather broad meanings, very roughly “ready; about to; likely to”. These include fit to bust (or burst), to do something with great energy (“he was laughing fit to burst”); fit to drop, worn out or exhausted (“I worked till I was fit to drop”); and fit to kill, doing something to excess, especially in fashion (“she was dressed fit to kill”), though this is now usually heard as dressed to kill. Older ones that have now vanished include fit to freeze, extremely cold (“it was fit to freeze the very marrow in one’s bones”), and fit to sink, to be alarmed or ashamed (“I was fit to sink with fear that the bomb would explode”). Most of these are found in British and American writings going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Fit to be tied means to be extremely angry. The idea behind it is that the person so described is in such a state of emotional excess that they need to be restrained to protect themselves or others. Luckily, most people described as fit to be tied are no more than extremely annoyed and the risk of violence is merely figurative.
The earliest examples I’ve found are these, respectively from the UK and the US:
It is amusing to mark the rage and disappointment of the Courier. ... “It is absolutely fit to be tied.”
The Champion and Sunday Review (London), 15 Aug. 1819. The quotes indicate it is considered very slangy.
[Two young women and their beaux are teasing their chaperone on a train journey.] Shortly they were whisked into a tunnel and all was darkness. “Smack? smack!” from Cromwell, and ditto ditto from the Muffin as he faithfully imitated loud kissing. It was pitch dark, and the old lady was “fit to be tied.” “Girls, what are you about?”
Wisconsin Democrat (Madison, Wisconsin), 1 Sep 1849.
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