The Grammarphobia Blog

Keep your shirt on!

Q: Do you know the origin of the word “shirty”? I heard it spoken by a British woman about someone who was being an annoying pest.

A: “Shirty” is an adjective meaning irritable or ill-tempered or angry. It’s chiefly British, and the Oxford English Dictionary dates it from 1846.

Here’s the word in action, via the P.G. Wodehouse novel Right Ho, Jeeves (1934): “But don’t tell me that when he saw how shirty she was about it, the chump didn’t back down?”

“Shirty” is derived from a now defunct expression, “to get one’s shirt out” (meaning to get annoyed), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. That idiom is, of course, the opposite of a still surviving expression, “to keep one’s shirt on” (meaning to keep calm and NOT get annoyed).

So what does all this shirt business have to do with being annoyed? A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge suggests that it comes from the custom of taking off one’s shirt before fighting. I wouldn’t argue with that.

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