Q From Andrew Haynes: As well as enjoying the weekly World Wide Words newsletter I also receive the daily A Word A Day e-mail. One of this week’s words was strop, for which the only meanings given were the noun and verb related to blade-sharpening. It seems that in the USA strop is not used in connection with petulance. Is this UK sense somehow derived from the blade-sharpening one or does it have an entirely different origin? I promise not to get in a strop if you should ignore my suggestion.
A You’re too kind.
Strop with the meaning of throwing a hissy fit or losing one’s temper is definitely a British creation and it’s reasonable that the American A Word A Day hasn’t heard of it. This sense is unconnected with the strop you mention, which is probably from Latin stroppus, a thong (it also has the sense of a strap, unsurprising since strap is in origin a late sixteenth century dialect form of strop). Here’s a recent example of the British word, about a former British television chat show host, the late Russell Harty:
[He] will no doubt be best remembered for his interview with Grace Jones who threw a diva-ish strop that resulted in the singer slapping Harty across the face for not paying her enough attention.
Guardian, 17 Aug. 2012.
Strop is fairly recent as words go, only appearing in print in the 1970s. We’re sure that it originated as a back formation from the adjective stroppy. In Britain a stroppy person is bad-tempered and argumentative. In South Africa, Australia and New Zealand it has overtones of somebody who is rebellious and hard to control. This is its first known appearance, in Britain but by an Australian writer:
There ain’t nothing clever about answering him back and being stroppy.
Seagulls over Sorrento, by Hugh Hastings, published 1951. The play was first performed in June 1950.
The play came out of Hastings’s experiences in World War Two and it is probable that it was wartime services slang. If not from the leather strap sense of strop, then where did it come from? The most probable origin suggested by the experts is that it’s a much-messed-about version of obstreperous.
That’s not as unlikely as it sounds. The English Dialect Dictionary records several versions of the word at the end of the nineteenth century, including obstropolous and obstropilous. Others include obscrophulous (“Just the place for a little lady like her, when she gets too obscrophulous” — Alexander Harris, An Emigrant Family, 1849) and obstropolis (“What could a simple Barber do against an obstropolis horse; an animal that frequently would not answer the whip; play tricks in spite of the curb; kick over the traces; and ‘bolt’ right away from all his drivers, and no help for it” — Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, 1832).
Obstropolous is the form most often found in old writings, as a way of indicating a non-standard or uneducated pronunciation; one writer on slang in the middle of the nineteenth century said it was Cockney, though 50 years later the English Dialect Dictionary noted it was then in general dialectal use in Scotland, Ireland, England and America. The previous century it appeared in works by Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer, 1773), Tobias Smollett (Sir Launcelot Greaves of 1762 and Roderick Random of 1748) and Samuel Richardson (Clarissa, also 1748). That’s a distinguished pedigree, you may agree. Another slight variation is actually a little older still:
Fearing she would grow obstrepulous, they each of ’em took hold of one of her Arms.
The English Hermit, by Peter Longueville, 1727.
Since several of these forms, including the most common, contain a stressed strop, it’s reasonable to assume it was shortened to that. If so, considering the age of the examples, it’s something of a surprise that stroppy is so comparatively recent and that it appeared before the noun.