What Is the Origin of the Phrase "Blow Your Top"?

Many idioms feature the term
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“Blow your top” is one of several phrases used to describe losing one's temper. Often, this idiomatic phrase is expressed as a warning -- “don’t blow your top” -- and it invokes the image of a tea kettle heated past boiling. The actual origin of this term, though not exact, appears to be industrial in nature.

1 Definition and Similar Phrases

According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online and other idiom dictionaries, the phrases "blow your lid," "blow your top" and "blow your stack" are synonymous. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English is the exception, noting a distinct nuance: “blow your stack” is defined as losing one’s temper, while to “blow your top” means to lose emotional control.

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2 Argument for 19th Century Origin

As Julia Cresswell writes in “The Cat’s Pyjamas,” most terms containing “blow” have to do with losing one’s temper or becoming so angry that one loses all self-control. But the exact origin of the term is unknown -- as is its intended visual. Cresswell writes that the phrase “blow one’s top” is believed to draw on the image of oil wells under pressure because, if not properly monitored, these structures could erupt and send streams of black liquid into the air. But the phrase might also relate to pressure caused by steam or water power.

3 An Industrial Meaning

The meaning of "blow your top" reflects an interesting cultural shift in language, Cresswell argues. Idioms using “blow” first referred to storms, with a person’s temper being compared to growing barometric pressure. Examples of this include “blow up,” “blow away” and “blow out of proportion.” But blowing one’s top, lid or stack is decidedly technical. Because of this, the phrase can be dated to the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century, when steam power became popular. Cresswell demonstrates the term “blowing up” was already a conversational term at this point, citing its use by the character Mr. Sikes in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” published in 1838.

4 In American Conversation

Routledge states that the phrase “blow your top” didn’t catch on in American usage until the mid-1940s. The dictionary traces the first print appearance of "blow your top" to a blues song in 1946 and "blow your stack" to 1947. The Three Stooges comedy film “Fifi Blows Her Top,” released in 1958, demonstrates that the phrase was in common use by the late 1950s.

Sabine McKellen began her career teaching English as a Second Language to adults from around the world. She has spent the past seven years in journalism, covering social issues, specifically in rural communities. Her work has appeared in community newspapers throughout southern California, and in various trade and educational magazines.