Many Americans will know this word, though it’s rare in other parts of the English-speaking world. It seems one can’t have just the one fantod — they always arrive in multiples. Modern writers may speak of somebody having a case of the fantods, or hyperbolically the flaming fantods or the swiveling fantods, descriptions of somebody in a state of extreme nervous hysteria or unreasonable excitement (as in the Atlanta Journal in March 1999: “He is beside himself, in flaming fantods, screeching histrionics in the direst of foreboding and doom”).
The word is known in America from the nineteenth century: the first recorded appearance is this:
You have got strong symptoms of the fantods; your skin is so tight you can’t shut your eyes without opening your mouth.
The Adventures of Harry Franco, by Charles Briggs, 1839.
It was a favourite of Mark Twain, as here in Huckleberry Finn: “These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn’t somehow seem to take to them, because if ever I was down a little they always give me the fan-tods”.
Where it comes from is mostly a mystery. Of the singular the Chambers Dictionary says, “a fidgety, fussy person, especially a ship’s officer”, which is intriguing but doesn’t get us very far. Some etymological works point to its presence in Dorset, Kentish and Lincolnshire dialects, and suggest it probably arose from the dialectal fantique, which may ultimately be from fantastic or fantasy. This turns up in yet another spelling here, meaning an escapade:
“You’re a amiably-disposed young man, Sir, I don’t think,” resumed Mr. Weller, in a tone of moral reproof, “to go inwolving our precious governor in all sorts o’ fanteegs, wen he’s made up his mind to go through everythink for principle”.
The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens, 1837. Dickens is here faithfully recording the London pronunciation of the period, which often turned vs into ws.
By one of those oddities of transmission, having been taken to the US and shifted sense, it then returned to Britain around 1900. For a couple of decades at the beginning of the twentieth century it is found in works by British authors, such as Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, and E C Bentley (in Trent’s Last Case: “ ‘John Masefield has written a very remarkable play about it,’ said Trent, ‘and if it ever comes on again in London, you should go and see it, if you like having the fan-tods’ ”).