The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s a gas

Q: Does the expression “It’s a gas” (meaning “It’s a lot of fun”) come from the use of laughing gas?

A: It’s possible that the use of “a gas” to mean a lot of fun may somehow be connected with the common name for nitrous oxide, but we haven’t found any solid evidence to support this.

Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, speculates about such a connection, but he doesn’t come to any conclusion.

In writing about the Irish English use of “gas” to mean fun, Partridge adds this brief notation: “Ex ‘laughing gas’?”

The use of “gas” to mean a vapor was coined in the mid-1600s by the Flemish physician and chemist J. B. van Helmont, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Dutch word used by van Helmont was probably an alteration of chaos, the ancient Greek word for empty space.

Chambers says the letter “g” in Dutch “represents a sound somewhat like the modern Greek sound transliterated as ch.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that van Helmont used a Dutch version of the Greek chaos “to denote an occult principle, supposedly an ultra-refined form of water, which he postulated as existing in all matter.” 

The first use of “gas” in English, according to OED citations, was in a 1662 translation of van Helmont’s 1648 work Ortus Medicinæ: “for want of a name, I have called that vapour, Gas, being not far severed from the Chaos of the Auntients.”

The word’s modern sense of a shapeless substance that “expands freely to fill the whole of a container” dates from the late 17th century, according to Oxford citations.

As for nitrous oxide, the gas was first synthesized by the English chemist Joseph Priestly in 1772, and first used to anesthetize a dental patient in 1844.

The OED’s earliest example of “laughing gas” used for nitrous oxide is from a June 23, 1819, issue of the Times of London that refers to the “chymical experiments on gas at 9, when the laughing gas will be exhibited.”

“Laughing gas is so called from the euphoric intoxication it causes when inhaled at low concentrations,” the OED says. “It has been used as a general anaesthetic in dentistry and surgery, and also illicitly as a recreational drug.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the word “gas” took on the sense of “enjoyment, amusement, fun” in Irish English.

The OED’s first citation for the usage is from Dubliners, James Joyce’s 1914 story collection. In “An Encounter,” a story about two boys who skip school, Mahony tells the narrator that he’s brought along a slingshot “to have some gas with the birds.”

However, the usage you’re asking about (the use of “it’s a gas” or variants to mean it’s a lot of fun) didn’t show up in print until the mid-20th century, according to written examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED is from “Sonny’s Blues,” a 1957 short story by James Baldwin in The Partisan Review: “Brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.”

Here’s a more recent example from Paul Auster’s 1990 novel The Music of Chance: “ I’m looking forward to it immensely.’ ‘Me too, Bill,’ Pozzi said. ‘It’s going to be a gas.’ ”

The OED doesn’t speculate about the origins of this sense of “gas,” but it points the reader to a related slang word, “gasser,” which it says originated as a jazz term. 

The earliest Oxford citation is from “The Hepsters Dictionary” (1944), a brief glossary by Cab Calloway: “When it comes to dancing, she’s a gasser.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang also links this use of “gas” to jazz. It cites several jazz examples, including one from Corner Boy, a 1957 novel by Herbert Simmons, in which a group of teen-agers discuss the jazz singer Nellie Lutcher:

“Man, don’t Nellie kill you?”

“She’s a gas, man, a natural petrol.”

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