To Go Haywire

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A reader asks,

What does the expression “to go haywire” mean?

Applied to a system or contraption of any kind, “to go haywire” means “to go wrong.”

Applied to a person, “to go haywire” means “to become mentally distracted.”

Here are some examples of idiomatic usage:

My new company’s server went haywire right after I moved everything.

After a couple of years of sewing on my new Singer, something went haywire.

[They got along] except for that time when she went haywire and tried to kill him.

I loved Harlan and treated him right, but somewhere he went haywire.

Haywire, also called “baling wire,” is thin wire used to bind bales of hay or straw. At least it used to be. The last bale of hay I bought from Lowe’s was bound with plastic strips. However, I once bought some chicken wire that was held together with short lengths of thin wire. When I managed to untwist the bits of wire holding the roll together, it sprang apart, jabbing me with a hundred pointy ends. The experience was similar to that described by H. L. Mencken in regard to haywire:

No one who has ever opened a bale of hay with a hatchet and had the leaping wire whirl about him and its sharp ends poniard him, will ever have any doubt how “to go haywire” originated.—The American Language, Supplement 1 (1946).

According to a writer at WorldwideWords, haywire was “the duct tape of its era.” It was used to repair hinges, mend fence holes, and replace lost or worn-out machine connections.

Haywire was used in contexts other than farming. A footnote in a history of the Bohemian Lumber Company (1985) explains that “some loggers and millmen would sometimes wire their machinery in place with baling wire to keep it running, sans parts.” In the 1900s, the expression “hay-wire operation” referred to a shoddy, poorly equipped logging business.

A line called a haywire plays an important (and dangerous) part in retrieving felled logs. In 2012 an inexperienced logger in Washington State was killed by a haywire during cable logging operations in Lewis County.

A glossary of hobo terms defines “a haywire outfit” as “something that is all tied and patched together,” a term similar to “jerry-rigged.”

The most common uses of “to go haywire” are those that refer to something that has stopped working properly or to someone who has become emotionally distraught.

Related post:
Jury-rigged vs Jerry-rigged

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1 thought on “To Go Haywire”

  1. Maeve, you put it so much more diplomatically than I would have… I always thought it just meant “going crazy”! 🙂
    Great post, I didn’t know the history behind haywire.

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