September 3rd, 2014 Headsman
Today’s admittedly slight entry is a milestone not only for Finland but for this site as well: it’s the 2,500th consecutive day we’ve posted since we launched on Halloween all the way back in 2007, roughly two or three Ice Ages in Internet years. Lord knows the site design looks it.
One can well doubt the utility of passing the epoch in execution-hunting. But if there is one thing that thousands of hours over 2,500 days plumbing archives for scaffold stories confers, it’s a certain facility with the subject matter. I’ve read an awful many literary products from many a time and place, on the occasion of this rare meta-post, I’d like to mine them in service of a petty peeve.
There is a certain English convention favoring the use of the word “hanged” to refer to the execution of a human at the end of a rope, in contravention to the word “hung” in every other imaginable context of a dangling past participle. Though this is certainly an intervention in an ancient argument that tends to generate more heat than light, I do wish it understood in no uncertain terms that a vast concourse of primary literature testifies that it is perfectly acceptable to use “hung” to refer to an execution.
While I have my own preference and peccadillos about language, I associate most readily with the descriptivist camp.
But I hope to convince you, gentle reader, that for us to hang together on this matter it is not even unnecessary that you share my readiness to welcome ever more shocking barbarisms into the tongue.
The verb to hang derives from two different Old English words, hon (intransitive) and hangian (intransitive). A good thousand years ago, hon and hangian collapsed into a single word, whose dominant past tense across the board was hanged. Centuries after that, the alternate form hung migrated out of the north of England and basically crowded out the old hanged past participle, sort of like snuck is doing to sneaked today. No doubt the pubs of old rang in their day with outrage that apprentices these days no longer said hanged my codpiece but preferred this degenerate novelty quasi-word instead.
Ever thus. Anyway, when all was said and hung, hanged only hanged on to its archaic noosey usage, perpetuated by innumerable (it’s way more than 2,500) formulaic judicial sentences. It’s hanged right onto it all the way down to the present.
Let’s just see about that.
However, there’s never been any sort divinely inscribed rule to halt the advance of hung at the edge of the scaffold — nor has that been the consensus practice of actual English speakers over the generations.
It’s practically mandatory among the descriptivist set to roll out the 1994 Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage on this subject. The source has its detractors and other dictionaries argue differently, but underscore at a minimum its point as to the worth of the distinction. Sure, your teacher, like mine, probably told you that “pictures are hung and people are hanged,” and hanged is certainly a correct word for what the hangman did. But …
Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. Educated speakers and writers use it commonly and have for many years … Hanged is, however, more common than hung in writing. It is especially prevalent when an official execution is being described, but it is used in referring to other types of hanging as well …
The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one (although a few commentators claim otherwise). It is, however, a simple one and easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.
Tastes aside — and I will admit to a deeply inculcated preference for “hanged” — what does the language profit by throwing up a Berlin Wall to preserve from hung only this one specific sense of to hang — this sense, and no other? How does the noose, a minuscule enclave of usage, command its own irregularity in 21st century English?
Languages evolve in funny ways, to be sure. Hanged is certainly good for the gallows but less so for your picture, and that alone is an acknowledged oddity.
But it is not only in the 21st century that English has resorted to “hung” to refer to execution, and done so with perfect ease and clarity.
The Merriam-Webster source aforementioned was good enough to provide some of the examples informing its conclusion, and these are repeatedly found in the various forum threads on the Internet where the sorts of readers who make war over the Oxford comma hang out. For example:
“These men were … at last brought to the scaffold and hung.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley
“I have not the least objection to a rogue being hung.”
-W. M. Thackeray
“The negro murderer was to be hung on a Saturday without pomp.”
We could add a few ourselves.
“Some of those hung were known personally to Europeans in Tabriz, who are positive that they took no part in the fighting. They were hung simply because they were Constitutionalists.”
“My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick.”
“Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings”
Educated, knowledgeable wielders of the language have been right at home with hung in our sense for centuries. These examples tend to elicit the objection that one is cherry-picking a few careless errors every writer makes here and there, and while that has the look of circularity to me — educated speakers don’t say “hung”, so every example to the contrary is by definition a mistake — maybe the problem is a dearth of data points.
Please allow your narrator to remedy this! Two and a half thousand posts in, I’ve seen “hung” used many times in primary (or secondary, but still quite vintage) sources in a wide variety of literary forms and quoted some number of them on the site.
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 1905
Any individual example of a word’s use can always be defined away. For example, when Thomas Hardy recalled the disturbingly sensuous appeal of a murderess he saw die on the gallows in his youth — “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back” — one can well note that here he uses “hung” to draw attention not to the execution itself but to the fact of her dangling, her suspended corpse’s impression as an object under his eyes.
Perhaps this is also why our correspondent finds that the beloved thief Skitch “hung but a few seconds, before the rope slipped from the gallows.” It is certainly in this sense that Christ “hung on the cross” because he was physically sagging off it.
And this lyric celebrating Irish “Invincible” Joe Brady would obviously lose the rhyme if it resorted to “hanged”, so artistic license may be admitted as well if it be confined to stylists of poetry and not prose:
It was in Kilmainham Prison the Invincibles were hung.
Mrs Kelly she stood there all in mourning for her son.
She threw back her shawl and said to all:
“Though he fills a lime-pit grave,
My son was no informer and he died a Fenian blade.”
Grammar very quickly becomes the proverbial blind man’s lamppost here, used not for illumination but for support of an ungenerous and predetermined conclusion. But I think the frequency of the examples of “hung” over the years, often used precisely in spots that would induce today’s fastidious language police to fire off a blog comment or tweet, builds a strong case that “hung” has been an acceptable past participle in English for our line of work for a very long time.
While “hanged” is the predominant choice, there are so many instances of “hung” to be dredged from English archival sources that the alternatives are clearly a both/and for writers across several centuries, rather than an either/or.
These official 17th century Middlesex county records, to pick a trifling example, consistently index the various felons “sentenced to be hung.” Much later, the prolific 19th century scribbler George Walter Thornbury‘s Old and New London volumes remark that Lord Sanquhar was “sentenced to be hung till he was dead;” likewise this 1880s tour of York Castle given to the Smithsonian Institute uses the four-letter variant over and over again.
Jonathan Swift’s poetic rogue Tom Clinch went to his death with intrepidity that Swift commended to his readers in a line whose meter could just as easily have borne “hanged”.
Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch,
Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.
When Lord Nelson had the Jacobin Neapolitan admiral executed by asphyxiation with a rope attached to a ship’s yardarm on June 29, 1799, he recorded in his journal:
A slight breeze; a cloudy sky. Sentenced, condemned, and hung Francesco Caracciolo.
Crossing the pond, we find the New York Times correspondent reporting the execution of five indigenous Cayuse for perpetrating the Whitman Massacre. “The town,” he reported, “was full of men and women, the former coming to see how the election resulted, and the latter to see how the Indians were hung.” Grammarians may enjoy their chuckle here, but nobody misunderstands the meaning.
New Hampshire Patriot and Gazette, Nov. 29, 1865
[s]ome of the mutineers were to be hung, and around the gallows, erected during the night previous, the soldiers were drawn up.
In none of these are the various authors lingering especially over the physical quality of suspension. The word conveys the act of execution, simply and directly.
“Hung” is certainly ubiquitous in the use of everyday speakers who are not literary craftsmen. An eyewitness report to the post-Civil War execution of Confederate guerrilla Sue Mundy:
The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions.
But this syntax is not confined to the hoi polloi. Even judges — like the one who pronounced sentence on Richard Johnson in 1829 — were known to condemn prisoners to be hung by the neck until dead.
Respectable English newspapers used “hung” sometimes, and without worrying the empire’s fainting-couches, in the 18th and 19th centuries, like the London Times on Fritz Muller’s 1864 hanging:
At half past seven in the morning, all the prisoners started tapping their cell doors: bang, bang, bang. It just went on. As we got nearer to eight o’clock they started banging quicker: bang, bang, bang, bang. And at eight o’clock exactly they all banged once, hard, and then stopped dead. And I thought, ‘That’s the moment he’s been hung.’ The hairs on the back of my neck went up, they really did. I remember it to this day.
So how many more centuries must the line against common folk saying “hung” be policed to save the Queen’s English from degradation?
I can’t speak readily to the thrust of English in all the many parts of the world that it is spoken, but at least as pertains Great Britain and North America, I do wonder if a wider colonization of the word “hung” in this sphere was unnaturally aborted by the vanishing of the hangman from the Anglo public eye.
Britons have not laid eyes on a public execution in a century and a half; hardly any Americans are still alive who would remember the last one stateside. Although Britain has been fifty years without an execution of any kind, its current frequency of execution by hanging is basically statistically identical to that of the United States. Even allowing for the imprint of judicial executions abroad, or suicides by hanging, most of those who don’t choose to write a daily blog about the death penalty perhaps have altogether less reason to talk or think about hangings than did ancestors milling about the public gallows at Tyburn or the Boston Common.
It’s just a theory.
Two thousand, five hundred posts into this project, only the devil knows how long this site might continue to run or what it will all mean when we come to the end of it. I can only assure the reader that I’ll, er, hang on as long as I can. If the substance of this post can be Executed Today’s legacy, I’ll consider it an epoch well-wasted.
Previous self-congratulatory milestone posts:
2001, musing on the death penalty in literary dystopias
1500, about the Hand of Glory legend
1000 (and one), about the Arabian Nights stories
500, merely a Spartan marking of the date
On this day..
- 1806: John Docke Rouvelett, malicious prosecutor - 2016
- 1430: La Pierronne, visionary - 2015
- 1924: Patrick Mahon, for the Crumbles Murder - 2013
- 1821: Timothy Bennett, duelist - 2012
- 1875: Six in Fort Smith under Hanging Judge Isaac Parker - 2011
- 1736: Both John Vernham and Joshua Harding survive a hanging - 2010
- 1918: Fanya Kaplan, Lenin's would-be assassin - 2009
- 2003: Paul Hill, anti-abortion martyr - 2008