Q From From David Bagwell: At least in the deep South of the United States, somebody who worries unreasonably is called a worry-wort or worry-wart, an odd usage. I could not find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, at least with my eyes or a glass in my edition with the “Lord’s Prayer on a pinhead” font. Is it known in other parts of the world? It sounds old, and I’ll bet it goes back a long time. And is it wort or wart?
A It’s been about a month since you asked this question, so I hope you’ve not been kept awake at night worrying about the origins and spelling of this curious expression. In case you have, I hasten to clear up the second part of your question by confirming that it’s always written wart, like the growth on the skin.
It was originally American and remains widely known there (not only in the deep South), though it has long since migrated to other parts of the world. It’s not particularly common in the UK but does turn up from time to time:
Instead of wandering about in a joyful, pregnant haze, I became an obsessive worry wart. I didn’t even dare buy baby clothes.
Daily Telegraph, 28 Apr. 2014.
The origin, as so often with popular phrases, is a comic strip. In this case, it was the highly popular Out Our Way by J R Williams, which began life in 1922 and ran until 1977. In the early days it often featured a small-town family. One of the boys, aged about eight, was nicknamed Worry Wart by his elder brother. In one early frame, the boy is in bed alongside an open window, his bedclothes and face blackened with soot from nearby factory chimneys. He gets an unsympathetic reaction from his brother:
So somebody told you it was good fer you t’sleep with a winder open, hah? Well answer me this, Worry Wart, without no sarcasticism — does this somebody live in a shop neighborhood?
Out Our Way, by J R Williams, in the Canton Daily News (Canton, Ohio), 3 Apr. 1929.
The phrase came into the language at around this time and became quite popular in the 1930s because Williams produced many gently humorous cartoons featuring Worry Wart.
What’s intriguing about its early history is that it didn’t mean what it does now — somebody who constantly worries about everything and anything. Instead it took its sense from the cartoon — a child who annoys everyone through being a pest or nuisance. An early reference is a story from April 1930 in a Texan newspaper, the Quanah Tribune Chief: “Elmo Dansby (the school worry wart) informed us that he was going to get him a girl and have a big time.” He doesn’t sound like a worrier. An odd enquiry a little later in the decade (presumably a humorous squib and not a genuine question) shows the meaning well:
Dear Pat and Mike: I am a young squirt in the Sophomore class. I have many bad habits such as trying to act smart, pestering the teachers, am the biggest worry wart in school and think I am very cute. Tell me a way to overcome these bad habits. — Worry Wart.
Dear Worry Wart: When you find out what people think of you, you will automatically drop them.
Lockhart Post-Register (Texas), 8 Nov. 1934.
This meaning was still the usual one when the phrase began to appear in Australia after the Second World War, but by the 1950s it was being used there in the way we do now. It took some years more for the meaning to change over completely in the US. By the time it reached us here in the UK it had only the current sense.
So where does it come from? There has long been a belief that warts are caused by worry and stress, which presumably accounts for the current meaning. And the original sense may have been provoked through the idea that warts are often an itchy nuisance. They invite one to scratch and worry at them, which only makes things worse. The idea was expressed in this falsely worry-making admonitory ditty:
Don’t worry a wart,
Or a thing of that sort,
You’re taking a terrible chance sir;
For often they grow,
As doctors all know,
Into a formidable cancer.
Sandusky Star Journal (Ohio), 26 Feb. 1923.