in Wacky Word Wednesday

Put on a pair of your most outrageous dancing shoes for today’s Wacky Word Wednesday, a weekly celebration of the wackiest and most interesting words from around the world!

Today’s wack-tacular word is tarantism. Here’s the definition from

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An uncontrollable urge to dance; a mania characterized by an uncontrollable impulse to dance, popularly attributed to the bite of the tarantula.

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The etymology of tarantism is tied in with its place of origin: Taranto was a city in south Italy where this phenomenon emerged throughout the 15th to 17th centuries. During this time, the inhabitants of Taranto believed that the bite from a tarantula, also known as a wolf spider, was deadly. If bitten, they believed that the only way to prevent tarantula-induced death was by reacting with feverish dance moves (think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, but more spastastic). The tarantula itself—not to be confused with the unrelated hairy arachnids that most people understand tarantulas to be today—was also named after Taranto.

Both a type of dance and genre of music, the tarantella also finds its origins in this southern Italian city. Because of the widespread belief that frenzied, high-energy dancing would somehow relieve a person of the spider’s poisonous venom, music naturally became part of the treatment. The tarantella has since evolved into a well-known folk dance and category of Italian music that commonly uses 6/8 time.

Victims of the spider’s poison danced with such ferocity that it’s hard to believe that the bite of a wolf spider—allegedly at the root of this hysteria—is indeed poisonous. Regardless, it’s unlikely to cause either uncontrollable dancing or death. As for remedies, a simple treatment of soap and water would do the trick. Though the reason behind tarantism has yet to be discovered, some research suggests that the whole thing was invented as an excuse to dance. As one source puts it: a good excuse for wild abandonment during an age of religious repression. Hey, can’t argue with that!

It’s also interesting to note that, around the same time, a similar phenomenon was occurring throughout Europe, identified as dancing mania. Also known as St. Vitus’s dance, the dancing craze is said to have spread around Europe on a much larger scale than tarantism. Cases involving thousands of people at a time were reported, as people danced in a wild and possessed fashion, sometimes quite literally dancing their pants (and other garments) off. It became known as the dancing mania when, in 1278, two hundred people allegedly danced with such force on a bridge in Germany that the bridge collapsed.

Here are some examples of tarantism in modern-day situations.

  • Whoa! Check out that dude in the corner. Is that a case of tarantism or what?
  • Laura excitedly accepted Jon’s hand for a dance, but she soon regretted her decision. Once on the dance floor, Jon didn’t seem to register the slow tempo of the song; as his body spastically flopped about  like a seizure victim, she was certain it was a case of tarantism.

And that’s it for today’s Wacky Word Wednesday. Spread the word and boogie on!

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  1. The anecdote about the dancers on the bridge made me laugh out loud. Reminds me about a house party I had at my house about 8 years ago. The drunken climax was about 20 people, linking arms, and jumping and crashing down in perfect syncronization to some rude but poignant South Park song. I live in and old house, and that floor creaks when I walk on it. It’s a miracle I’m alive, I tell you.

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