Simanaitis Says

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THE WORD “HANG,” its various tenses and compounds have a multitude of meanings, some commonplace, some anachronistic, some all but forgotten. Merriam-Webster cites no less than eight different definitions for its transitive verb, 13 for its intransitive sibling, and another 13 for its compounds. Here’s a selection of “hang” tidbits, etymological, educational, theatrical, historical, and even Shakespearean.

Hang’s Etymology. According to Merriam-Webster,, hang has a rich parentage: “partly from Middle English hon, from Old English hōn, transitive verb; partly from Middle English hangen, from Old English hangian, intransitive verb & transitive verb.” Its first known use in Old English dates from before the 12th century, and it has always meant “to suspend,” in one sense or another.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, devotes four of its microprinted pages to hang. It too cites a reference that’s early indeed: “c. 1000, Ælfric Hom. I, ‘Swa halig wer hangian ne sceolde.’ ”

According to The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church/XXXVIII, this is “So holy a man ought not to hang.”

Hanged versus Hung. This brings me to the contentious usage of hang’s past tense: hanged versus hung. Though M-W is not nearly so strong on the point, I recall Mrs. Grimbly’s firm distinction between these two: Pictures are hung, the condemned are hanged. Her natural class precluded any anatomical discussion of the matter.

My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Lerner and Lowe, Sony Columbia, remastered edition, 2011.

Those of us respecting Mrs. Grimbly’s erudition were aghast with the musical My Fair Lady, 1956: Upon encountering Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, phoneticist Henry Higgins sings, “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,/Condemned by every syllable she utters./By right she should be taken out and hung,/For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!”

Eliza responds: “Aaoooww!”

Perhaps Eliza was objecting to Higgins’ use of “hung” versus the Mrs. Grimbly-correct “hanged,” merely for the poetic license of rhyming with “tongue.”

Hang Up the Phone. Even today, we speak of “hanging up” on someone or say “hang up and drive!” We’re decades beyond a telephone having a separate earpiece that needed hanging and years since we used phone booths requiring a similar action.

An antique Kellogg magneto-powered crank wall phone with separate earpiece to “hang up.” Image from Collectors Weekly.

It’s akin to our “rolling up” a car window.

Other Hangings. Surfers “hang ten” when all of one’s toes do without the confidence of the board. Drivers “hang a Uie” where, one hopes, U-turns are permitted. And, to wit any recent news from Washington, D.C., a person “being hung out to dry.”

And Thereby Hangs a Tale. William Shakespeare tantalizes our interest, no less than four times, with the phrase “And thereby hangs a tale.” In As You Like It, Jaques (he, also of the Seven Ages of Man monologue) says sadly, “And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;/And thereby hangs a tale.”

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616, the finest writer in the English language and world’s preeminent dramatist.

Shakespeare also incorporated “thereby hangs a tale” in Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Taming of the Shrew.

This last one is my favorite, with Shakespeare’s punning of the phrase. In a servants’ ribald exchange, Grumio is telling Curtis how Kate fell off her horse onto her backside. We know the Globe Theatre groundlings would have guffawed at tail/tale. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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