"paroxysm, sudden attack" (as of anger), 1540s, probably via Middle English sense of "painful, exciting experience" (early 14c.), from Old English fitt "conflict, struggle," which is of uncertain origin, with no clear cognates outside English. Perhaps ultimately cognate with fit (adj.) on notion of "to meet." Meaning "sudden impulse toward activity or effort" is from 1580s. Phrase by fits and starts first attested 1610s (by fits is from 1580s).