Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

The Fantods and the Cold Robbies

My latest column in the Malaysia Star.

In a recent newsletter from Anu Garg, who runs the excellent “A Word a Day” e-mail list, a reader used an expression I hadn’t heard before. In talking about ritual mourners – people who are hired to wail and moan at funerals – she wrote:

“He explained that the women did not actually faint, but were probably demonstrating the ‘cold robbies’, or the ‘fantods’, in their performance of what appeared to be fainting spells.”

Cold robbies and fantods both require explanation.

To get the fantods is to feel uneasy, queasy, or nervous. It’s often used in the phrase the howling fantods, which, as you might guess, is a particularly bad case of being nervous.

Both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Collins-brand dictionaries define “fantod” as something like “crotchety or faddish behaviour”, which, to this American’s eyes, seems wrong.

For one thing, I hardly think crotchety, which means “irritable or cranky”, covers it. “Faddish”, too, is a queer choice for the definition. If behaviour is faddish, that means that a person has a craze or a great deal of enthusiasm for something.

Here’s what the fantods are, as far as I know: If you’re in an old building after dark and the lights suddenly go out and you hear mysterious noises in the other room and you begin to feel like something supernatural is breathing on your neck, that’s a case of the howling fantods.

It’s not that the fantods are different in the United Kingdom, but in looking at the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, and in the many uses I find over the past couple of centuries, I see that the fantods to some people have meant “fidgety, fussy, or frustrated behaviour” and to others they have meant “nervous behaviour, as if afflicted with some uncontrollable fit or emotion, even to the point of resembling a medical condition requiring treatment”.

Cold robbies are even harder to get a handle on. It means more or less the same thing as “fantods” but it’s not very common as all.

It seems to come from the comic Pogo, written and drawn by Walt Kelly. In one strip, one of the characters confuses the word kohlrabi, a type of cabbage, for the name of a disease, and then they mispronounce it as “cold robbies”. So, to have a case of the “cold robbies” is to have an unknown and uncertain affliction.

Another similar term is yips. You could look up the yips in a medical textbook and perhaps find it under the term focal dystonia, but any pro golfer who has stood before a daunting putt could tell you all about them, too.

As a golfing term in the 1930s, the yips were a mental condition which threw off one’s game or destroyed the control required to make difficult precision putts.

Yips like these are strictly psychological. They make the hands do other than what the mind intends. Balls hook or slice, putts go wide. One golfer got such a case of the yips – or the mental yips, as they were often called – that he walked into closed doors.

The yips sometimes refer to an actual tremor of the hands or full-body flinches which prevent good play. Golfer Sam Snead had the yips – he called them the twitches, and said one of his best seasons (and he had many) was due to working hard to fight the yips.

The yips aren’t confined to the United States or golfers. Artists and musicians get the yips. Footballers in Australia get the yips. Basketball players who can’t make shots from the free-throw line, or even simple lay-ups, might have the yips. Baseball pitchers who can’t throw strikes might have the yips. More seriously, some doctors get the yips – shaky hands in the surgery having the potential to cause more damage than a wild pitch into the stands.

Those of us who are non-professionals, though, get different afflictions when we’re nervous: the willies, the heebie-jeebies, the screaming meemies, the screaming abdabs (largely British), the collywobbles, the jim-jams (which often include a notion of emotional depression). There are many other less common words, too.

The jim-jams are often used as a synonym for the DTs. These stand for delirium tremens, and refer to the shakes that alcoholics get when they’re suffering from withdrawal, that is, when they don’t have the alcohol that their bodies crave. Their entire bodies shake.

The full form, delerium tremens, is more or less a medical term, but the abbreviate form, the DTs, is more humorous.

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Grant Barrett