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Going spare

Q From Richard I R Winter in Ontario Canada: An article in the British magazine Country Life tells of villagers complaining about the National Trust opening a property on Sundays. The quote from one of the irate villagers interested me: “You can go out for a walk and find yourself in a traffic jam of cars. Farmers have gone spare as they can’t get their tractors up the busy lanes.” Gone spare is a quaint way of describing road rage. What is its origin?

A You’ve been misled by a specific use of this characteristically British slang phrase. It actually means being in a state of rage or distress over some issue identified by the context:

Mum will be going spare if we don’t arrive in time for her to feed you this morning

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J K Rowling, 2007.

Sometimes it has implications of going crazy:

I can see constitutionally that there’s an argument that the heir to the throne should not get involved in controversy. The honest truth is I didn’t mind. If you are waiting to be the king, and you’ve waited a very long time, you genuinely have to engage with something or you’d go spare.

The Times, 30 June 2014.

Its early history is sparse but there are enough clues for us to be fairly sure about how it came about. Based on the historic and current standard sense of spare — kept in reserve, not currently wanted, or beyond what one needs for ordinary use — at the end of the nineteenth century people gave it an additional meaning of a person who is forced to be idle and therefore useless or superfluous.

Later appearances suggest it was taken into military slang, since to be spare is noted in 1919 as meaning off-duty and a military dictionary of 1926 records to look spare as meaning idle. This is a slightly earlier example of going spare in the same sense:

This is not to suggest that men in camp are “going spare,” but is simply to state that there are crews available for more cars.

Times, 14 Aug. 1924.

Eric Partridge suggests in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English that it was used for going absent without leave during the Second World War, though there’s no known written evidence for it. There are some hints that after the war it came to mean men who had been laid off from work.

Quite how we got from this to rage or distress isn’t obvious. One idea that has been put forward is that it arose from emotions provoked by enforced idleness. (We may discount the idea that it’s rhyming slang: spare tyre -> ire.)

Some writers have suggested that go spare in the sense you’ve met was being used in the spoken language by the early 1950s, if not earlier. But this is the first recorded use in print:

When he saw what I had done he went spare.

Bang to Rights, by Frank Norman, 1958.

It’s worth noting that there’s another sense of going spare, presumably extended from the early twentieth-century military one, for something that’s currently unwanted and available for re-use.

“Your parents said you could move into their hotel,” Rebus said. He turned to face Costello. “They’ve booked two rooms, so one’s probably going spare.”

The Falls, by Ian Rankin, 2001.

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Page created 16 Aug 2014