Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Worry Wart

I can't remember exactly when I first heard the term "worry wart." Now the term seems to be out of fashion, although most people still seem to know at least that it refers not to a type of blemish but to a person who worries obsessively, whose personality is to some extent defined by worry.

I do remember my mother telling me one day--I was probably between the ages of 8 and 11--that I shouldn't be "such a worry wart." Of course, I have no idea what I was worrying about at the time, and therein lies one lesson which worry warts seem unable fully to absorb. Posed as a rhetorical question, the lesson is as follows: will this thing you're worrying about matter ten years, ten months, ten weeks, or even ten minutes from now? As all worry warts know, such questions are entirely reasonable and therefore beside the point.

If the OED is to be believed, the term "worry guts" or "worryguts" preceded "worry wart.." Both terms, "worry guts" and "worry wart," are not immediately, shall we say, appealing.

Anyway, here's some additional informaton from the OED, with kind thanks to the producers of that resource:

9. Comb.: worryguts dial. and colloq. = worry wart; freq. as a term of address; worry pear (tree) = CHOKE-PEAR; worry wart colloq. (chiefly U.S.), an inveterate worrier, one who frets unnecessarily.
1932 Somerset Year Bk. 83 The missis, who be a prapper worryguts. 1966 O. NORTON School of Liars iv. 72 He laughed. ‘Worryguts!’ ‘I wasn't worried. I was just trying to be efficient.’ 1982 D. PHILLIPS Coconut Kiss ix. 94 It's all right..isn't it?’ I asked. ‘'Course it is, Worryguts,’ said Vera.
1562 TURNER Herbal II. 108 The wyld Pere tre or chouke Pere tre or worry Pear tre.
1956 I. BELKNAP Human Problems of State Mental Hospitals x. 177 The persevering, nagging delusional groupwho were termed ‘worry warts’, ‘nuisances’, ‘bird dogs’, in the attendants' slang. 1974 J. HELLER Something Happened 445 ‘Don't be such a worry wart.’ ‘Don't use that phrase. It makes my skin prickle.’

So the term "worry wart" seems not to be that old, even as it may be receding from colloquial American usage. It's interesting (to me) that "worry warts," at least according to this fellow Belknap (cited above) , were deemed sufficiently problematic to be sequestered in mental hospitals. I think Dr. Belknap, if indeed he was a doctor, may have been over-reacting. Perhaps he was something of a worry wart.

I notice that the term "worry pear," referring literally to a kind of pear that tastes bad (acidic) and figuratively to a person who worries too much, seems to have preceded both worry guts and worry wart. A worry pear was also referred to as a choke pear, and "choke pear" sent me on another investigative adventure because I was worried that I didn't know enough. The investigation led to a harrowing discovery on the site "Infoplease":


An argument to which there is no answer. Robbers in Holland at one time made use of a piece of iron in the shape of a pear, which they forced into the mouth of their victim. On turning a key, a number of springs thrust forth points of iron in all directions, so that the instrument of torture could never be taken out except by means of the key. (from Infoplease, online, with thanks)

I had never heard the term "choke-pear" before today, thus I had never heard it used to refer to an argument to which there is no answer ("What are you, an idiot?" seems to be such a question. One doesn't want to answer "Yes," but one doesn't want to answer "No" because to do so lends legitimacy to a question one views as illegitimate. One doesn't want to answer, "I'm not sure" because one might feel as if one is giving an idiotic answer.) Nor, of course, had I ever heard of this Dutch torture-device used by robbers. Good grief! Now I'm really worried!

(I had heard the term "choke-cherry," referring to a plant native to the Sierra Nevada [and perhaps elsewhere] that produce tiny fruits that look like miniature cherries but that are extremely sour; they may look "ripe" but are never sweet. I don't think they're poisonous, but you'd still have to be extremely hungry to eat them. Of course, I tried them a couple of times; children are empiricists. I did not suffer poisonous effects, nor did I choke, but oh my were they sour. )

In any event, here is what is intended to be a playful poem (with some playful rhymes, not unlike those found in some of Langston Hughes's poetry) about worry:

Thin Poem Concerning Worry

Late and early
I worry.
Early and late
I seem to hate
to let go.
I do not know
how to control
a mind on patrol
late and early.
I should surely
know by now
how not to worry.
I often vow
not to worry,
not to worry,
but then hurry
to worry,
wander into
troubled pondering;
take the hubris bait
early and
late--and imagine
that I can
change things
by pulling
these worry-strings,
making the puppet,
me, unfree
of worry, dancing
on a tiny set
in a miniature hell
called Fret.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
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