Fly off the handle: Why do we say someone is flying off the handle?

Cute Funny Fly off the Handle Mug mug

“My teacher absolutely flew off the handle today when I was 30 minutes late for class this morning…”

We use the phrase “flying off the handle” to describe someone who has lost their temper and self-control, and has become so angry that they are dangerous to others. What has this got to do with flying and handles?

Back in the pioneer days of America in the 1800s, frontiersmen used to go about their building and carpentry business with tools that were often made by their own hands. Sometimes the tools were crudely made, and it wasn’t uncommon for an axe head to go “flying off the handle” mid-wield.

It’s not hard to imagine the response of nearby people as a lethal axehead whooshed past their heads, just missing them. Angry shouting and screaming were pretty certain to have arisen!

“Flying off the handle” thus became associated with an uncontrolled, dangerous and violent anger, much like the uncontrolled, dangerous and potentially violent flying of the axehead.


  • John Neals. 1825. Brother Jonathan (novel) – The first recorded use of the phrase “off the handle”
  • Thomas C. Haliburton. 1843. The Attaché (a.k.a Sam Slick in England) (book) – The first recorded use of the phrase “flying off the handle”
  • Robert Hendrickson. 1990. The Henry Holt Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origin. Henry Holt & Co
  • Webb B. Garrison. 2007. Why You Say it. Grant Press.

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