‘(as) mad as a (cut) snake’: meaning and origin

The Australian and New-Zealand phrase (as) mad as a (cut) snake, and its variants, mean out of one’s mind, extremely annoyed.

This phrase occurs, for example, in the review of Top of the Lake (2013), a television series by the New-Zealand director and screenwriter Jane Campion (born 1954)—review by the Australian author and arts journalist Kirsten Krauth, published in RealTime (Sydney, New South Wales) of June-July 2013:

Campion’s strengths in filmmaking […] have always been for the quirky, the gothic, the mingling of wild passion with nature, and her intense eye for detail. Matt might be mad as a cut snake, lashing himself with a belt over the grave of his mother, but he still uses her fine china for tea: in the kitchen background his son carefully turns the delicate teapot three times while brewing a pot for his father.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase (as) mad as a (cut) snake and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Our Esk Letter, published in The Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Ipswich, Queensland) of Tuesday 12th June 1900—the fact that the journalist writes “to use a colloquial expression” indicates that the phrase (as) mad as a snake was already well established:

POLICE COURT.

A man named John Molloy was brought up at the Police Court, on Tuesday last, before Messrs. Chaille and Smith, on suspicion of being of unsound mind, and, after hearing the evidence of Acting-Sergeant Clare, and having the man examined by Dr. Moore, who gave a certificate to the effect that Molloy was insane, the Bench considered that the suspicion was well-founded. Molloy was taken to Ipswich, examined (I am informed) by a medical man, and discharged. Some surprise has been expressed at this course, for, according to all accounts, the man was, to use a colloquial expression, “as mad as a snake.”

2-: From The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (Dubbo, New South Wales) of Saturday 7th January 1905:

CRICKET PARS.
(By Straight Drive).

Cricket is essentially a summer game, but even cricket has its limits, and New Year’s day to my mind was one of the days on which it would have been wise to let cricket severely alone. Those who took part in the match Town and Country on Monday last, must, without a doubt, be marked down as being either genuine enthusiasts, or as I heard a person remark, mad, mad as snakes.

3-: From Local Brevities, published in The Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative (Mudgee, New South Wales) of Monday 3rd December 1906:

The average Australian has a supreme contempt for work, and progress of any kind, whether from a personal or national point of view, is his natural enemy. An illustration: Half a dozen youths were sprawling in the shade of the Exchange Corner on Saturday lazily discussing town topics, when a lad came along with a hand cart selling fruit. “Oo’s that,” drawled one. “Dunno” replied one of the tired group, “but ee’s es mad as a snake to to [sic] be workin this weather.”

4-: From New Zealand Truth (Wellington, New Zealand) of Saturday 25th May 1907:

JAIL JABBER.
A PEEP INTO HOST CLEARY’S INFERNO.
Some Sidelights on the Lyttelton Hell Hole.

[…] There are now six hopeless beings working out life sentences with but a glim hope of discharge away years down the misty future. The six are a despondent looking lot, and one wouldn’t be surprised to hear of any of ’em going right off their dot at any time. One or two are not right in their napper now. Dan Swan is one. He is as mad as a snake, but works out in the gang, and the others don’t take much notice of him. Swan was sentenced to death for bashing his wife’s brains out, but was reprieved, and is now grafting until
HIS OWN FUNERAL DAY
happens along.

5-: From Boxing, published in The Daily Post (Hobart, Tasmania) of Wednesday 9th December 1908—the following is about the U.S. boxer John Arthur Johnson (1878-1946):

It is known that Johnson is not on very good terms with the promoter, who, when he recently went out to see the colored man at his work, was met with the jibe, “How do, Mr. M’Intosh? How did you drag yourself away from Tahmy?” Mac, who prides himself on his fairness, got as mad as fifteen snakes, and in sulphurous language regretted that a disparity in physique made a bout there and then impossible.

6-: From Breezy Bits from Sydney City, by ‘Florrie Frivolous’, published in Truth (Brisbane, Queensland) of Sunday 12th September 1909:

The ladies of Chatswood organised a dance and sent the proceeds (£40) and a brand new cot with linen sheets and fancy hangings to the North Shore Hospital last year. This year they sent £80 for the maintenance of “The Chatswood Cot.” But lo! when they called to deliver the cheque they found that their present had been lying in the lumber-room for ten months and had only been put in the ward that morning. Needless to say, all felt as mad as summer snakes, and the explanation by the matron that the hospital already had too many beds and cots did not improve matters. So they held an indignation meeting, and decided to ask for the return of the cot, with the intention of presenting it to some other hospital not quite so well off.

The phrase (as) mad as a cut snake is first recorded in Ginger Murdoch (Sydney: Angus & Robertson Limited, 1932), by the British-born Australian author William Hatfield (Ernest Chapman – 1892-1969)—as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, June 2022):

‘But you’re mad!’ said Mick, ‘mad as a cut snake!’

The first two occurrences of the phrase (as) mad as a cut snake that I have found are as follows:

1-: From Man Hunt, a short story by R. Carson Gold, published in World’s News (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 16th February 1946:

The half-caste was getting on his nerves. His ice-cold calm seemed a direct insult—because Lannigan himself was horribly afraid. It wasn’t good for a white man to be afraid—and a dark man so chillingly, calm.
That night the half-caste said:
“Rance, you’re scared—like a yeller dingo!”
Lannigan shivered, and wouldn’t meet the half-caste’s eyes. Up till then he thought he had hidden his fear, and the butterflies fluttered all round his stomach with greater activity now that the half-caste knew he was afraid.
“Scared, hell!” he tried to brazen it out. “You’re mad, ‘Snowball’—mad as a cut snake. What the hell have I gotta be scared of?”

2-: From The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 30th October 1946:

“W.O. Two”: There was not an army unit that did not have its share of “dills,” “drubes,” “peanuts” and “zombies,” and our outfit had, during the early days, as weird an assortment as any. Many were hopeless simpletons who should never have been allowed to join the Army. A few were not as boof-headed as they appeared to be, but merely acted silly to dodge irksome tasks. Strictly speaking, however, they came under the heading of “no-hopers.” One of our prize “dills” was “Oigle,” who could be coaxed into almost any foolish prank. He was kidded into wearing a jazz cap on early-morning parade, walking into the sergeants’ mess clad in a loincloth and sporting a false beard, and sending a note to the R.S.M. asking whether he could have breakfast in bed. “The Dingbat” was so stupid that he lost himself every time he ventured more than 50 yards from his hut. “The Drongo,” whom even his closest cobber agreed was “as mad as a cut snake,” could not perform the simplest drill movements, hold a rifle without dropping it or master the business of folding blankets. One by one these misfits were either discharged or passed on to other units, A few remained to the end, however, including “Shorty,” victim of countless practical jokes and a “wood-and-water joey” to everyone in the unit. For the mere asking “Shorty” would polish boots, wash clothes, clean rifles, run messages or take over fatigues. The boys gave the poor “loon” a rough spin one way and another, but when the unit was about to disband made it up to “Shorty” in an unexpected manner. They took up a collection and bought him an expensive wristlet watch. The average Digger always had a soft spot for the decent sort of simp even when poking borak at him.

In the following, published in The Canberra Times (Canberra, Australian Capital Territory) of Saturday 28th January 1995, Ronald Rose mentioned, among other phrases, (as) mad as a (cut) snake:

WORDS
By Ronald Rose
Origins as mad as a meataxe

“MAD AS a meataxe—where does that expression come from?” I was asked. It sounds Australian and indeed it was listed by Sid Baker (The Australian Language) together with a whole string of others—mad as a cut snake, tree full of galahs, frilled lizard . . .
Professor Gerry Wilkes (A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms) noted the first occurrence, in 1946, in Coast to Coast: “The cow’s mad, mad as a meataxe!” The Australian National Dictionary provided further examples, but no-one offered any suggestion on a possible origin for the meataxe idiom.
A pause here to note that whilst mad as a cut snake may be Australian, it probably derives from the English mad as a nadder = mad as an adder. Also, there are many “mad as” expression [sic] in our language. Mad as a hatter may be a corruption of nadder, but it is more likely, as Partridge says, a topical reference, like the similar mad as a weaver. Mad as a [March] hare goes back to Chaucer, a reference to hare behaviour during the rutting season.
To return to meataxe, I found that Thomas Haliburton, an early wordsman, used the expression “She was . . . as wicked as a meataxe” in 1835. So meataxe, used metaphorically, was not Australian. I considered various possibilities, words that sounded like it, that could have been its source. One was Metaxas, the fiery Greek general of nearly a century ago; a brandy with a similar name . . .
Then I turned to Yiddish and found a possible answer. Meshugga means crazy, certifiably mad. A foolishness, a fairly harmless obsession is mishegaas, which possibly could be misheard as meataxe. On the other hand, it could be perfectly straightforward—meataxe is pretty mad, isn’t it?

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