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shameless pleading






I honestly don’t get it.

Dear Word Detective:  After a long night of drinking, I awoke this morning with a pretty nice hangover.  Surprisingly, my brain was still functioning enough to wonder where and how the word “hangover” was coined.  I would imagine it has to do with being hung over a barrel vomiting or some variation of the sort but I’ve also heard it simply means “unfinished business.”  Could you possibly provide a cure to my hangover conundrum? – Carmen, Utica, NY.

Well, there’s another thing I don’t have to worry about.  I keep a list of such things to cheer myself up.  Don’t laugh.  It’s a real help when I check my bank statement or watch the news to be able to say, “At least I don’t have to worry about being eaten by a polar bear.  Or what I’m going to wear to the Oscars this year.”  If you work hard at it (and I do), you can come up with a list of literally thousands of bullets you’ve dodged.  It makes forking over $700 you don’t have for a car part you’ve never heard of (as I recently did) a teensy bit easier.  Always look on the sunny side, I say, albeit through clenched teeth.

In any case, I don’t worry about hangovers because I’ve been truly, utterly drunk only once in my life, when I was 19, and I decided right then never to do it again.  I do remember that hangover quite vividly, however.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “hangover” as “The unpleasant after-effects of (especially alcoholic) dissipation,” but even I know that doesn’t do the affliction justice.  A full-blown hangover can include severe nausea, a blinding headache, excruciating sensitivity to light and aching pain darn near everywhere.

Your theory about “hangover” referring to the posture of literally “hanging over” a receptacle while feeling the after-effects of one’s excess makes perfect sense, since that posture is almost universally a low point of the recovery process.  But the “unfinished business” explanation you’ve heard is the dull, but true, source of the word.

When “hangover” first appeared in English at the end of the 19th century, it was in the general sense of, as the OED puts it, “A thing or person remaining or left over; a remainder or survival.”  The “hang” in the word is the verb “to hang” in the meaning of “to remain unsettled or unfinished,” as we might say an unanswered question in a press conference is “left hanging.”  “Over” carries the sense of “surplus” or “left after the finish,” as one might have the “leftovers” of Sunday dinner for lunch on Monday.  This “something left over or left undone from an earlier time” sense of “hangover” is is still in use (“The oversized dormitories … are hang-overs from the old lunatic asylums,” 1973).  But the use of “hangover” to mean “aftermath of excess alcohol,” which first appeared in 1904, is now by far the more popular usage.

5 comments to Hangover

  • Dylan

    Sleeping on a rope is where the term hang over comes from , the drunks would spend all there money on booze so only have enough for the rope, so getting very drunk means you get a hang over.

  • David Goodall

    The sleeping on a rope etymology of hangover is apocryphal and dubious!

    More likely is the original meaning of hangover as something relating to an earlier event or thought; in drinking terms, as the effects being a remnant of prior excess

  • Yael

    No. Dylan, it is not the source. It’s a folk etymology with no actual supportive evidence – what in this day and age we might refer to as “fake news”. Nobody ever slept on a rope; that idea doesn’t even make any sense, when you think about it (it’s much more comfortable to just huddle on the floor, which also tends to be free). And just generally, to comment on an article by an etymological expert which clearly explains the actual source with an “umm actually, [made-up thing I heard once] is the source” is incredibly conceited.

    • Yael

      (Okay, it’s a bit early in the morning for me and I probably should’ve looked a bit more before writing; not because the rope story as an etymology is correct- it still very much isn’t – but because it turns out there actually were a few places where people slept over a rope. World Wide Words refers to a few sources about this, while still refuting the etymological connection: Still sounds weird and uncomfortable to me, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, I guess.)

  • The term hangover is best describe as a old cowboy or miner that was either leaving or coming,yes from drinking,he was noticed by all, Hung over his mule

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