What the heck is hanging?
October 9, 2008 9:49 AM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the phrase "getting the hang" of something? What did it mean, originally, to "get the hang" of something?
posted by RedEmma to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
OED says:

to get the hang of: to become familiar with the proper wielding or use of a tool; fig. to get to understand, manage, master, deal with as an adept; to acquire the knack of. (orig. U.S. colloq.)
1845 N. S. PRIME Hist. Long Island 82 (Bartlett) After they have..acquired the hang of the tools for themselves. 1847 DARLEY Drama in Pokerville 67 (Farmer) The theatre was cleared in an instant..all running to get the hang of the scrape. a1860 T. PARKER in J. Weiss Life (1864) II. 434, I..think I have got the hang of the people and their institutions. 1860 O. W. HOLMES Elsie V. xxii. (1892) 245 Your folks have never got the hang of human nature. 1881 Spectator 12 Feb. 223 They..have not yet got the hang of good biography. 1883 CRANE Smithy & Forge 21 The hammer is one of those tools that the workman gets used to, or ‘gets the hang of’. 1890 Daily Chron. 4 Apr. 7/2 He gets what some call ‘the hang’ of the place. 1895 R. KIPLING in Century Mag. Dec. 271/1 I'm getting the hang of the geography of that place. 1918 War Illustr. 13 July 372/3 On the second day I had a ‘flip’ round the aerodrome to get the ‘hang’ of the country. 1931 H. G. WELLS Work, Wealth, & Happiness of Mankind (1932) 1 Never before has there been this need and desire to ‘get the hang’ of the world as one whole. 1957 Listener 17 Oct. 606/1 Children..in their desire to get the hang of their surroundings.

Still not entirely clear. Tool-related somehow...
posted by vacapinta at 9:54 AM on October 9, 2008

One explanation I've heard - and I can't confirm it's true, but it makes sense and is interesting in any case - is here:
posted by katillathehun at 9:57 AM on October 9, 2008

I don't know specifically, but I would guess it originates in some trade where you would literally hang something...like wallpaper. If you're doing it right you would have "gotten the hang of it".
posted by Thorzdad at 9:57 AM on October 9, 2008

I'd guess that often when you're done with something you hang it up, so perhaps it can be derived as completion (being done) of something such as learning a skill.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:48 AM on October 9, 2008

The "public executions by hanging" derivation is ridiculous. People, read the OED entry quoted above: it originally meant "to become familiar with the proper wielding or use of a tool." If your or someone else's bright idea doesn't start from that, it's wrong. And I don't think there's anything particularly unclear about it; one of the things you do when you get accustomed to a tool is get the heft, the feel, of it, part of which involves getting used to the way it hangs from your hand. It's quite parallel to "get the feel of."
posted by languagehat at 10:56 AM on October 9, 2008 [7 favorites]

I like to think it comes from the skill of being able to "hang-10" on a surfboard.
posted by quinncom at 12:15 PM on October 9, 2008

I think Thorzdad and hungrysquirrels are close. Pretty sure it refers to hanging something (like a framed photo or painting) up so that it is straight. When you get the hang (the proper spot along the wire or hook to seat it), it looks right and is balanced. That's my guess, anyway.
posted by self at 12:19 PM on October 9, 2008

Languagehat, I know that this your bailiwick, but the OED's oldest cite there is 1845, and it seems far from confident, since that use is clearly one that was written long after the writer expected the idiom to be understood. There's no claim to be certain that that was what it "originally" meant.

(My OED is at home, so I'm looking at vacapinta's paste there only.)

Not that I have a better guess than 'hammer', and the hangman's example seems a bit to cutesy-nifty to smell right, too, but 1845 is a lot more modern than I'd expect for a hand-tool origin. This one could use some more digging, I think. It doesn't see that slam-dunky.
posted by rokusan at 12:21 PM on October 9, 2008

*seem, of course
posted by rokusan at 12:22 PM on October 9, 2008

Could it have to do with rigging? Like "learning the ropes"?
posted by Echidna882003 at 12:40 PM on October 9, 2008

The back of my brain is busy trying to tie this all together with "get the knack of"... which leads me to "knickknack", which... wait wasn't I working?
posted by rokusan at 1:34 PM on October 9, 2008

I agree with languagehat on everything except the "wielding" metaphor. I think that came later.

It's definitely originally an Americanism by several sources, and the lack of citations before the 1840s indicates a slang origin rather than an evolution from something else. Like my favorite mystery phrase, "the whole nine yards", it is impossible to find anything confirming a concrete usage before its usage as an abstract idiom. It arrived in the written language fully formed, although it probably circulated orally for some time prior.

My own gut feeling is that it may have a sailing origin, derived from reading the "hang" of the sails, but that's not attested by anything, and it may as easily refer to many other things that hang. The analogy is clear, anyway. Does the painting hang straight? Is the pulley properly balanced? Stuff along those lines. I do want it to be about something that was relatively new or recently popularized, like a new technology, but again that's just a hunch.

The only other thing that comes to mind where we speak of "the hang" happens to be clothes. Perhaps the "hang" of a well-fitted suit is another angle to consider. Was there a fashion fad? What other things "hang"?

The honest answer is that we may never know for sure.

In my lifetime historical research has firmed up the origins of O.K., so it's not out of bounds to say somebody could come up with something more credible about this too.
posted by dhartung at 3:39 PM on October 9, 2008

OK, I did some (dangerous, I know) Google Books snooping. Hopefully all my dates are close enough to correct, but there could be anachronisms.

* "undecided coat-tails ... that have not yet got the hang of anybody's back" hmmm [1843, Philadelphia]
* "Any probable difference between the times of high water ... would scarcely exceed the duration of the hang of the tide ...." ! [1834, London] Obviously knowing the "hang" of a tide would be an important maritime skill.
* "... with our paddles used as poles and propellers (after drilling awhile in shoal water till we could "get the hang of it") [1844, New York]
* "I have made equipages my study, and, as they flit by me, can annihilate or exalt with a wrinkle of my brow. No one has such an eye for the hang of a Phseton, the sweep of a Tolento. A judgment delivered in ten words is a source of incalculable riches to saddlers and coach-builders. I approve a certain style of harness, and, behold ! leather becomes dear...." [1838, Edinburgh] Did I say harnesses hang? I meant to, I really did.
* "... take the trouble to examine the hang of an Omnibus when full and in motion, and mark the same when it is empty and at rest. ... the springs (of which there are generally four or six in number) are either quite straight or slightly bent upwards at each end ... the moment the carriage moves then an abrupt jerking motion of the springs takes place, and this is more or less violent in proportion to the velocity of the movement, and the unevenness of the road" [1840, London] Here we have "hang" meaning something more like "balance" or "position" than strictly hanging from something, but also back at the harness idea.

I'm also finding much using of "the hang of a hill" as it affects wind or water movement, thus suggesting a farming term. There's also one usage of "the hang" of a trigger in a gun.
posted by dhartung at 4:05 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

the OED's oldest cite there is 1845, and it seems far from confident, since that use is clearly one that was written long after the writer expected the idiom to be understood. There's no claim to be certain that that was what it "originally" meant.

Certain? No. But I presume they didn't put "to become familiar with the proper wielding or use of a tool" in the definition merely because that happened to describe the first citation. I presume they had a bunch of early citations clearly referring to tool use. Sure, they could have misconstrued the evidence, and the new edition may completely change this entry, but for the time being I'll take the OED's analysis over other people's guesses. That said, I think dhartung's guesses are informed and reasonable.

I agree with languagehat on everything except the "wielding" metaphor. I think that came later.

That wasn't me, that was the OED! Blame them!
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on October 9, 2008

See, I like the usages I cited where "hang" is clearly a state of some kind. That seems to fit with the idiom better than an action. If that usage for tide was common (no evidence), it fits especially well with the idea of intuitive knowing that this seems to describe, but I personally would give the harness/carriage stuff a point or two. Especially since springs were a relatively new invention.

Off topic, but there's a fair bit of horse and wagon lore in The Irish R.M. that is the equivalent of modern car technotrivia (torque, oversteer, etc.) in depth. What sort of horse to use for what sort of task (carting corn to market is different from driving ladies to town), what characteristics of a wagon are good in what kind of country, and so forth. Some horses were hunters, others were sedate family haulers, and the rider who didn't know his horse was quite possibly in trouble. It really made me realize how dependent people were in the pre-industrial era on the arcane and the expert. Horses didn't come off an assembly line, and wagons didn't have dealer service every 12,000 miles.
posted by dhartung at 8:46 PM on October 9, 2008

I always thought it was an archaic usage of "hang" as suggested by dhartung's last search result, meaning balance and related to using a tool. The more familair you are with the banace of a tool or weapon, the more proficient.

No research data to support it, just my gut.

It also makes me think of "the swing of things". which may or may not be related. The only citation I could find simply said it originated in the early 1800's, which appears to the about the same time that "hang of things" originated.
posted by Ookseer at 10:10 PM on October 9, 2008

Languagehat: it was the finality of your tone that made me say "wait a second", that's all, because I thought the subject sounded too-firmly closed there. Maybe I misread. I sensed that this one might be more slippery than some, that's all.

On the DH theories: I have always interpreted it as a state, too. The hang of something, like the cut of your jib. (Rigging, again.)
posted by rokusan at 10:44 AM on October 10, 2008

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