I couldn’t find this phrase listed in any of my usual sources, but I did find it defined on a few websites, one of which claimed it is an American expression – I don’t think so. I never heard it and all the examples I found were either British, Australian, or New Zealandish (see quotes below).<2008 “The call had come at 2:00 a.m., as so many calls do when you live in Sydney. It drives me spare sometimes, the way the smartest people . . . can’t retain the simple fact that Sydney is generally nine hours ahead of London and fourteen hours ahead of New York.”—People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, page 8>
DRIVE YOU SPARE: If someone or something drives you spare, it is extremely annoying. [[Make one extremely annoyed, irritate, drive one crazy/nuts, drive up the wall] (UsingEnglish.com)
The question now is, how do we get from ‘spare’ to ‘extremely annoying?’
SPARE adjective 1) [20th century and still in use]: Idle, useless, superfluous. 2) [1940s and still in use] (originally military): Overwrought, distraught; thus the verb to go spare.
GO SPARE verb [1940s and still in use]: To lose one’s temper, to act crazily. [see spare adjective (2)] (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang)
Note: In the above Cassell’s definition, they went from ‘overwrought, distraught, to ‘lose one’s temper, act crazily,’ which doesn’t exactly follow, but close enough, I guess.
GO SPARE (British & Australian informal): 1)To become very angry (infuriated) [[lose one’s temper, flip out, go ballistic]] or distraught. <She'd go spare if she found out he was spending all that money.> 2) To remain unused or not needed; to be unemployed.
(Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, Allen’s English Phrases, and Cambridge Idioms Dictionary)
GO SPARE: . . . The original sense of ‘go spare,’ when it first appeared in British slang in the 1940s, was ‘to be or become unemployed,’ making it a close cousin of the more formal British euphemism for being laid off, ‘to be made redundant.’ By the late 1950s, the normal emotional reaction to losing one’s job had colored the term ‘go spare,’ and it had had acquired the added meaning of ‘to become distraught or very angry.’ (Word Detective)
The above Word Detective etymology sounds reasonable, although it is a bit of a leap from ‘to become unemployed’ to ‘become distraught or angry,’ although the second may be one of the results of the first.
As far as drive one spare goes, ‘make one extremely annoyed’ (. . .irritate, . . . drive one nuts . . .) seems like the best fit according to the examples I found (see quotes below). ‘Make very angry or distraught’ could also work depending on the circumstances, but it's sometimes hard to tell which one is meant.
The following quotes are from archived sources:
______________________<1969 “The train had just gone. His lordship nearly went spare.”—Is he Dead, Miss ffinch? by J. N. Smith, xv. page 95> [[Oxford English Dictionary]]
<1977 “I used to go spare when she took a cold.”—Evening Times (Glasgow Scotland), 20 June page 8>
<1998 “Linda Glover, brought dogs into work. Chris says: ‘They'd be jumping all over the place and drive me spare.’”—The People (London), 7 June>
<2003 “A whole minute of Quiet Jake, the Morose Middle-class Teenager, could drive you spare. He's worse than monosyllabic; it's sign language - nods and shakes - for everything.”—The Independent on Sunday (London), 23 February>
<2005 “Gordon Brown will go spare when he sees such a massive tax hike just weeks before an expected general election.”—Evening Standard (London), 1 April>
<2006 “I think it would drive me spare to become just somebody who stayed at home and waited for him to come back. I need to have my own life . . .”—Belfast Telegraph (Northern Ireland), 28 September>
<2009 “. . . he had one of those little tiny quiet voices that drive you spare after a while . . .”—A Song for Nero by T. Holt>
<2012 “. . . he'd go spare if David were to bring a girl home . . .”—The Independent (London), 14 June>
Ken G – August 28, 2013