The Americanism “to fly off the handle” first got into print about a hundred years ago, meaning, as it does today, to lose one’s self-control suddenly, or, in popular parlance, to loose one’s head.
The latter was the literal meaning, for the allusion was to the head or blade of a woodsman’s ax, which, if loose upon the helve, was likely to fly off dangerously at a tangent anywhere along the swing of the ax.
John Neal seems to have been the first to record the forerunner of the present expression, for the earlier usage was just “off the handle.” Neal, a novelist from Portland, Maine, visited. England when he was thirty, and while there published, in 1825, the novel, Brother Jonathan; or the New Englanders.
In this, speaking of a surprise attack upon an Indian village, one of his characters says, “How they pulled foot when they seed us commin’. Most off the handle, some o’ the tribe, I guess.”
Our old friend, Judge Thomas C. Haliburton, who has already been quoted several times as the first to record some American expressions, has again the honor of being the first to use the full line, “to fly off the handle.”
This appeared in another of his “Sam Slick” tales, The Attaché, or Sam Slick in England, published in 1844.