String ’em up!

Posted by on May 06, 2010

Could it be that the Macmillan Dictionary Blog has become a hotbed of nihilist political views? Are we seeing political apathy in extremis?

Nah.

Just want to whinge on about one of my old bugbears, namely, the misuse of the words hanged and hung.

One of the many embarrassing truths about our past is that Blighty used to have the death penalty. Not for us the pharmaceutical complexities of the ‘lethal injection’, nor the energy-spike-causing surge of the electric chair. No, cheap and (not particularly) cheerful was the way to go and the snappy little death sentence in the UK used to go like this:

“[full name of prisoner] you will be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul”.
(‘The sentence of death’ on www.capitalpunishment.org)

Notice the word hanged? This word is used very specifically in this context as the past participle of hang, yet many people use the word hung – a whole different continent of a word entirely!

The Macmillan Dictionary definition of hang is: ‘to kill someone by putting a rope around their neck and making them fall’ and its past participle is listed for this one sense, as hanged, not hung. For all other senses of hang, the regular past participle is hung.

Part of the confusion may lie in the fact that, interestingly, hanged is only used when the intention of the act is to actually kill someone by putting a rope around their neck and suspending them above the ground. Being hung, drawn and quartered describes what is actually an act of torture, where the hanging up of a person by a rope is merely for convenience and is certainly not meant to kill the person, as then their death might be quick and painless, rather than long and agonizing.

OK, I might be running away with myself a bit here but for me, this irregularity, this idiosyncratic past participle is one of the things that makes the English language so beautiful. It certainly doesn’t make it easy for learners of the language but at least they can feel they have really mastered this complex tongue when they are able to use this irregular little blip – and perhaps even correct native English speakers who wrongly use hung in this context. After all, if people are allowed to continue with incorrect usages of the words too often, then those incorrect usages themselves become the norm.

Britain’s general election looms large upon our social, political, economic and media landscapes and I cannot help smirking every time I hear the term hung parliament. Perhaps there are those who have only heard hung used where hanged should have been and wonder if we are planning a horrible end for the three men who would be king.

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