There I was, doing nothing in particular except thinking about my next holiday in the Pacific, with palm trees swaying in the breeze, clear blue water and saxon-haired maidens wearing almost nothing on the golden beaches.
Then a grandmother (my wife hates news reports that talk about grandmothers) walked up to me and said if I had done something terribly wrong would I be hanged or hung.
My first reaction was to say I hadnt done anything terribly wrong for days, but I felt she wanted a different type of answer. I promised I would get back to her eventually.
People often want a precise explanation of some of our language quirks, and sometimes it is not possible to give a clear explanation.
Hanged and hung is a good example. We say a person is hanged but a picture is hung.
Why is it so? as the professor once said.
If you put it down to usage, you would not be too far from the truth.
In almost every case the word would be hung, but usage has determined that in the case of a person the word is hanged.
A picture would be hung. You might have hung Christmas decorations. You might even have hung your head in shame if you had done something terribly wrong.
You could tell that grandmother the chances of suffering this extreme punishment are fairly slim these days in Australia, but no doubt she would find another country and persist with the question.
I discovered the woman in question had had a recent argument with her husband. He had told her of the distinction between hanged and hung, but she did not believe him and decided to ask me instead, thereby losing me another friend.
You could blame lawyers for the word hanged. They love hanging people out to dry.
The late Stephen Murray-Smith said hanged had hung around probably because of the legal professions conservatism. He used as an example Ill be hanged if I will.
Actually, some lawyers are my best friends. They will do anything to help you just remember to pay them.
My big dictionary said hanged meant put to death by hanging by the neck. It goes back to 1330 with a quote saying Edrik was hanged on the toure.
Hung meant suspended, but the earliest reference I could find for this word went back only to 1663.
It appears the correct word was hanged, but hung came into vogue much later. Think of similar words, such as walked and talked.
What are the chances that in years to come we might talk about people who runned instead of ran?
Dont take bets yet.
A person who has suffered death from hanging is a hangee. The executioner is a hanger.
Incidentally, Albert Pierrepoint is alleged to have hanged at least 400 people in Britain. Some said more than 600. Then he became a publican. A person who has had too much to drink is hungover. My big dictionary has found hundreds of expressions such as hang on, hang off (Shakespeare used this expression), hangdown and hangdog.
I like hangable, the term for one who should be hanged or a husband who comes home late for tea.