English "jitter" from German "zittern"?

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Dec 23 23:08:16 UTC 2006

My thanks to Jonathan for his reply below. I guess the main question now is what occurred about 1929-1930 to propel "jitter" into the standard language.  Jitteriness/trembling can have many causes, of which wartime fighting is only one. Would any of the databases have an antedating of "jitter"?  It would be good to zero in on the context of the earliest attestations, if such clarificaiton is in fact possible. Meanwhile, I'll check the 1929 Sturges play to see if there's anything about Isabelle (or the playwright Sturges) that sheds light on the term.
Gerald Cohen


From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Jonathan Lighter
Sent: Sat 12/23/2006 3:34 PM
Subject: Re: English "jitter" from German "zittern"?

Whatever its origin, my experience is that "jitters" suddenly became widely current in U.S. English from about 1930.

  This is notable because no American writings about World War I published before that date seem to include term.  Had it been current as recently as 1918, one would expect to find many printed examples.

  The possibility that the word actually entered English in an untraceable way during the first World War, especially its latter phaseswhen thousands upon thousands of German POWs were interrogated after enduring extended artillery fire, should not be dismissed.

  The theory would be even more attractive if a nominal form of _zittern_ (?_die Zittern_) was widely current in the _Landwehr_ during WWI.

  If there was, I'd be strongly inclined to say, "Case closed."


"Cohen, Gerald Leonard" <gcohen at UMR.EDU> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Cohen, Gerald Leonard"
Subject: English "jitter" from German "zittern"?

In the Oct./Nov. 2006 issue of Comments on Etymology (series of working papers received by various libraries, scholars, lexicographers, word-buffs) I presented the tentative suggestion of my student, Daniel Gill, that English "jitter" might derive from German "zittern." Specifically, he asked me once if there's any connection between the two words, and with a bit of checking I told him the origin of the term is unclear and he might have hit upon the solution. I wrote up the material and presented it as a co-authored item (Gill & Cohen).

I will now run the brief item by ads-l with the questions: Does Mr. Gill's suggestion seem plausible? Is there any information that he and I may have overlooked, either in favor of the German derivation of "jitter" or in opposition to it? I've reproduced the Comments on Etymology item below my signoff, and any feedback would be very welcome.

Gerald Cohen

[from Comments on Etymology, Oct./Nov. 2006, p. 48; title: "English 'Jitter' from German 'Zittern'?"]:

OED2 says of jitter 'Origin unknown' and gives 1929 as the date of the first attestation:

P. STURGES Strictly Dishonorable II. 123 Isabelle. Willie's got the jitters--- Judge. Jitters? Isabelle. You know, he makes faces all the time.

Meanwhile, Barnhart 1988 says: jitters, n. pl. Informal. Extreme nervousness. 1929, American English, in Preston Sturges' play Strictly Dishonorable; perhaps developed as an alteration of dialectal English chitter, v. and n., tremble or shiver, from Middle English chitieren to twitter, chatter (probably before 1200, in Ancrene Riwle); usually considered of imitative origin.

1929 is late for the first attestation of a term in English, and while dialectal influence cannot be ruled out, the possibility of borrowing may turn out to be more attractive. In this regard, UMR student Daniel Gill drew my attention to German zittern 'to tremble' Initial /ts/ is foreign to English and would expectedly be changed to something similar; jitter is a plausible phonetic result, and of course the semantics jibe.


Barnhart, Robert K. 1988. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology. NY: Wilson.

Liberman, Anatoly 2005. Word Origins. Oxford U. Press. --- p. 38: 'It is amazing how often j (the sound, not the letter) occurs in words of obscure origin in which it contributes to the feeling that we have colloquialisms, if not exactly slang. Consider budge, grudge, drudge, fudge,...trudge, nudge, fidget; jab, job, jam (verb), jerk, jib, jinks, jitter, jog, jolt, and jumble. And this is not a complete list.'

OED2 = Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition.

Pfeffer, J. Alan and Garland Cannon 1994. German Loanwords in English: An Historical Dictionary. Cambridge U. Pr. --- no mention of jitter possibly deriving from German zittern.

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