Q&A: Where does “going haywire” come from?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're on a wire…

Q: Hey AWC, why do things always go haywire?

A: Bad planning? Poor materials? A lack of time? So many reasons.

Q: No, sorry, I actually want to know why we use the term “go haywire” for things going wrong. What exactly is haywire?

A: It’s precisely as it sounds. Wire used to make hay bales.

Q: I’ve never heard of it!

A: Well it’s a bit like trying to find a piece of wire in a haystack.

Q: Very funny.

A: Not everyone uses it – there are other materials like twine, but this particularly bendy wire was common enough at the beginning of the 20th century to give rise to this phrase.

Q: Aha – so that’s when it first appeared?

A: Yes, but originally it didn’t have the meaning we associate it with today. It actually was a way to label badly run lumber yards.

Q: Waaait, so we’ve moved from hay to wood?

A: Hey, would you look at that. So we have.

Q: But why “haywire”?

A: Haywire was notorious for being versatile as a makeshift way to tie other things up. If a lumber yard was poorly run, it was said in the early 1900s to be a “haywire outfit”. Today, we might use a different wire to approximate the same thing. For example, “things were held together by duct tape and chicken wire”.

Q: Got it. So we have a wire that people were lazily using to tie up logs of wood in 1905 or so. But when did it get the more “things going unpredictably wrong” meaning?

A: This has to do with the properties of the wire itself. Specifically its springy nature and tendency to bend all over the place. Combined with the makeshift jobs that were performed using this wire, the result was often a mess – the wire going in all directions and looking particularly untidy.

Q: How long did it take for this meaning to turn up?

A: Barely 10 years. By 1915, there is evidence that “to go haywire” was akin to something going awry or out of control, just as the wire would do if left alone for too long.

Q: Seems to be quite the troublesome wire!

A: Yep. By the 1930s it was even being used to describe a person’s mental state (“she’s gone haywire”) and in the 1940s, electrical engineers also called initial phases of testing “going haywire” due to the unruly nature of the wires in their prototypes.

Q: And today?

A: Besides still being an actual wire used for hay, these days it can be used as an adjective to describe something in disorder. E.g. “a haywire production”. But the most common use is in the phrase “go haywire”– to be out of control. E.g. “Things started to go haywire as soon as Steve showed up.”

Q: Steve really needs to stay away.

A: Yes he does. Perhaps in an assumed link to electrical wires, often it’s things like radios or computers that are said to go “haywire”. But as we have observed, this wire is not fussy. Everything from holiday plans to emotions to TV reception can go wrong when it’s about.

Q: Okay, some other wire questions for you. What about something that “comes down to the wire”?

A: This one’s quite easy – as the saying denotes a close finish, and as early as 1883, a wire was used as the finish line in a racecourse.

Q: And “getting your wires crossed”?

A: This dates back to the 1890s – and the very early days of telephones, when actual wires touching or crossing at the switchboard could accidentally connect you to the wrong person. By 1910, it was being used more figuratively to mean getting confused or any kind of a miscommunication.

Q: Accidental phone conversations. Talk about things going haywire!

A: We just did.

Q: No, I meant… never mind. Well, I’m not sure about you, but I’m wired after this chat!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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