Commenting on my July 5 column about the word “Judas” and the New Testament figure it derives from, Robert Cotton writes:
“It appears that you are not a member of the Association of English Grammarians, since if you were, you would have written ‘Judas is said to have hanged himself’ and not, as you did, ‘Judas is said to have hung himself.’”
There is, of course, no Association of English Grammarians; it was a playful invention of mine in the column, and Mr. Cotton has just as playfully gone along with it. But his reprimand is a serious one. If he is right, I have committed, grammatically speaking, a hanging crime.
Is he, however? Is it wrong to say “He hung himself?” rather than “He hanged himself”? And if it is, why?
If there were an Association of English Grammarians, it would probably agree with Mr. Cotton. Here is what my 1992 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has to say:
“Hanged, as in a past tense and past participle of hang, is used in the sense of ‘to put to death by hanging.’ In the following example hung would be unacceptable to a majority of the [dictionary’s] Usage Panel: Frontier courts hanged many a prisoner after a summary trial. In all other senses of the word, hung is the preferred form as past tense and past participle.”
And yet there is, I must say, something odd in such an opinion. “Hanged” and “hung,” after all, are two variants of the same verb. The former, known in English grammar as the “weak form” of the past tense, is constructed by adding the suffix “-ed,” a procedure followed by the great majority of English verbs. The latter, known as the “strong form,” works by internal vowel change. Although probably not much more than 100 verbs employ the strong form in standard English, the ones that do tend to be very common ones, such as “to know”/”knew”; “to give”/”gave”; “to think”/“thought,” etc. Such verbs are usually, though not always, single-syllable ones, and their stock is not renewable. One would never use the strong form for a neologism, as in saying, for example, “I Skope him” instead of “I Skyped him.”
The weak verb/strong verb dichotomy goes back to the earliest history of English and can be found in the entire Germanic-language family to which English belongs. Perhaps in the original, proto-Germanic tongue all verbs were strong. In any event, the weak ones have tended to become more dominant over time by a process of regularization. It is simpler to put an “-ed” at the end of everything than to have to learn that while the past tense of “to sing” is “sang,” the past tense of “to bring” is not “brang” — and in fact, there are nonstandard dialects of English in which “brang” is the past tense of “to bring.” Children would have an easier time of it if they were taught to say “I bringed” and “I singed,” just as standard English now allows us to say “I dived” in place of the older “I dove.”
Hanged/hung would be like dived/dove except for two things. The first is that, contrary to the norm, the weak form “hanged” was the older one in the English of late medieval London, from which our own standard English descends; the strong form “hung,” imported from northern England, began to replace it only in the 15th and 16th centuries. The second thing is that whereas “dived” and “dove” are two ways of saying exactly the same thing, as is generally the case with weak verb/strong verbs variants, the meanings of “hanged” and “hung” diverged, the former coming to be used for executions and the latter for everything else. The reason for this, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was the conservative language of the English courts, whose tradition-minded judges went on telling condemned men, “You are sentenced to be hanged,” while the rest of London was already saying, “He was sentenced to be hung.” In time, “hanged” became accepted in this context by the educated British establishment, whose preference has been handed down to us as “correct” English. And yet for the past 500 years, ordinary speakers of English, like me, have gone on saying things like “Judas hung himself” without caring a whit for the usage of 16th-century British courts. This seems to me a healthy attitude. It also seemed so to the great language pundit H.L. Mencken, who wrote in his 1919 classic “The American Language”: “The literary hanged is never heard. ‘The man was hung,’ not hanged.”
I’ll be hanged, Mr. Cotton, if I don’t take my stand with Mencken against the language snobs. (Dear me, did I say “I’ll be hanged”? Mencken was wrong: That once common and now rather archaic expression is one case in which “the literary hanged” indeed was heard in ordinary speech. I’ll be hung, though, if I’ll let that influence me.)
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