Often used in the plural, tantrum denotes an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, typically in a young child.
EARLY INSTANCES OF TANTRUM
This noun is first recorded in the 18th century in the plural forms tantrums, tanterums and tantarums; other forms have existed: tanthrum, tantrim, tantum and tantrells.
The earliest attestation is from a letter that Elizabeth Verney wrote on 30th October 1714 to her sister Mrs. Ralph Verney:
(edited by Margaret Maria Verney (1844-1930) – London, 1930)
Our Lady has had some of her tanterums as Vapors comeing out etc., but is I Think att present much better in health then good conditions, so I believe no danger of looseing her.
Another early occurrence is from The Hasty Wedding: or, The Intriguing Squire (Dublin 1717), a comedy by the English playwright Charles Shadwell (died 1726); Sir Ambrose Wealthy, a banker, says to his wife:
I will have one of my Rooms very well darken’d, — and the Doors barocaded, with a plentiful parcel of Iron; I will have ﬁne bundles of very clean Straw deposited therein; and when ever your Ladyship is going into your undutiful Tantrums, I will take you by the little Finger, and lead you into the aforesaid Room, and lock you securely in there; supplying you from Day to Day, with a sufficient quantity of Bread and Water, until you shall so far come to your understanding, as to be sensible, that I am and will be intirely Master of my own House.
And John Burton (1696-1771), fellow and tutor of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, wrote a satirical text entitled The Old Lady in her Tantarums: or Mother Oxford Ranting at Her Eldest Son K–ng (Eton, 1750).
A SIMILAR-SOUNDING SYNONYM: ANTRIM
In The English Dialect Dictionary (London, 1898), the English philologist Joseph Wright (1855-1930) remarked that the similar-sounding plural noun of unknown origin antrims, also antrums and antherums, meant “airs, whims, caprices, with an implication of temper”. Likewise, in An attempt at a glossary of some words used in Cheshire (2nd edition – London, 1826), Roger Wilbraham recorded:
Antrims, whims, vagaries, peevishness; the same as Tanterums or Anticks. Anticks however is common.
And in Legends and Historical Notes on Places of North Westmoreland (London, 1887), Thomas Gibson wrote:
Antrums. Tantrums, flighty.
ORIGIN OF TANTRUM: DISPUTED
According to several authors, for example William Carr in The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (London, 1828), the origin of tantrum is from German Tand, meaning vanity; in fact, this German noun has the sense of trinkets, and used to mean prattle, gossip, antics, farces. It is perhaps ultimately from Latin tantum, so much.
But, according to The Century Dictionary (New York, 1904), edited by William Dwight Whitney, the origin is perhaps the Welsh noun tant, meaning “a gust of passion, a sudden start of impulse, a whim, literally tension”; this dictionary adds that tant is akin to the Latin verb tendere, to stretch, and to the Latin adjective tenuis, corresponding to English thin.
In Notes on the South Lancashire Dialect (Liverpool, 1865), James Allanson Picton suggested the same origin:
Tantrum, a fit of excitement; Welsh tant, a sudden start, a gust of passion.
A Dictionary of the Welsh Language (Denbigh, 1832) by the Welsh lexicographer, grammarian, editor, antiquary and poet William Owen Pughe (1759-1835) contains the following:
Tant—plural tannau (tan) A stretch, or distension; a sudden start, or impulse; a spasm, a throb, or agony; a gust of passion, flight, or whim; what is stretched; a string; a string of a musical instrument.
However, it is possible that tantrums, tanterums, tantarums, was originally imitative and comparable to—or perhaps derived from—the word tantara, which dates back to the 16th century and originally imitated, and hence denoted, the sound of a trumpet or bugle; it came to be used in the general sense of an uproar, an outcry, a disturbance.
French had the similar trantrac, trantran, defined as “the lowd resounding, or sound, of a Hunters horne” by Randle Cotgrave in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611). In A Critical Inquiry into the Scottish Language with the view of illustrating the Rise and Progress of Civilisation in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1882), the French medievalist and philologist Francisque Xavier Michel (1809-87) wrote that tantrum was derived from the French trantran:
Tantrums, high airs, stateliness. In his tantrums, on the high ropes. French sur son trantran.
This was already the explanation given by Robert Forby in The Vocabulary of East Anglia (London, 1830):
Tantrums; airs; whims; absurd freaks; high ropes. Though the senses do not seem exactly coincident, it is probably from French trantrans.
A nonce word tantrum meant penis. In Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (1904), John Stephen Farmer (1854-1916) and William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) mention its occurrence in Burlesque upon Burlesque: or, The Scoffer Scoft. Being some of Lucians Dialogues, newly put into English fustian for the Consolation of those who had rather Laugh and be Merry, then be Merry and Wise (London, 1675), a translation by the English author Charles Cotton (1630-87) of dialogues written in Greek by the satirist Lucian of Samosata (circa 125-180); here, Bacchus tells Apollo that Priapus has sodomised him (nock means bum):
I needs must tell you
Priapus is a beastly fellow:
For (no one being by but us)
Calling at’s house at Lampsacus,
After we’d eaten well, and much,
And quaff’t it smartly upsy-Dutch,
It being pretty coldish weather,
He needs would have us lye together;
And so we did, when in the Night,
When least (I swear) I dream’t of it,
Betwixt some twelve and one a Clock,
He tilts his Tantrum at my Nock,
Till with extremity of pain
He plainly made me roar again.