Dear Word Detective: Lately I’ve keep hearing the phrase “You’re doing a bang-up job.” Which is good, I guess, when it refers to me but it’s got me wondering where the term “bang-up” comes from. Do you have any idea? — JL.
Well, my first thought on reading your question was “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Given the economic climate at the moment, I’d be thrilled if I were told I was doing a “bang-up job.” Unfortunately, I’m self-employed, so I’d have to be saying that to myself, which makes it a lot less fun to hear, especially because the last time I said it to myself (sotto voce, of course), I caught one of the cats rolling her eyes and snickering.
If there were some kind of central authority out there rating the performance of individual words, “bang” would get an excellent annual review, because “bang” has been doing a “bang-up job” since it first appeared in English back in the mid-16th century. “Bang” is an onomatopoeic (or “echoic”) word, one that was formed in imitation of a sound, in this case the sound of an explosion or something striking something with great force. “Bang” seems to have originated in a Scandinavian dialect, and is probably related to the Old Norse “banga,” meaning “to pound or hammer.”
Beginning with a basic sense of “strike with a resounding blow,” “bang” has developed an impressive range of derivative meanings, including “to beat or injure violently” (“The desperate Tempest hath so bang’d the Turke, That their designement halts,” Shakespeare, 1616), a noun meaning “thrill” or “a kick” (“He seems to be getting a great bang out of the doings,” Damon Runyon, 1931), “to bang out,” meaning to produce something rapidly and steadily, especially writing (probably from the sound of a typewriter), and “to bang on,” meaning “to pontificate or expound at tedious length” (“Then you have to stand around for hours afterwards, smiling vaguely as people bang on about perfect S-turns,” 1993).
Early in the 19th century, “bang” came to be used as an adverb meaning “thoroughly, completely, exactly,” probably from the sense of hitting something precisely with a hammer (“Do … you propose that we should walk right bang up to Teddy and tell him we’re going away together?” G.B. Shaw, 1907).
“Bang” was also used in Britain throughout the 19th century to mean “fashionable, stylish,” specifically in the sense of meeting a standard of fashion — being “bang-up to the mark” (“His spotted neckcloth knotted in bang-up mode,” 1843). It’s this sense of “bang-up,” meeting a standard of excellence, that we use when we say someone is doing “a bang-up job.”
Although “bang-up” is rooted primarily in that sense of “hitting exactly on the mark of excellence,” the popularity of the phrase is probably also due to the fact that the explosive connotations of “bang” echo the enthusiasm implied in such a judgment. A similar semantic overlap occurred during World War II, when “bang on” became a common phrase among Allied bomber pilots in Europe; bombs dropped “bang on” were both “exactly on target” and, of course, they actually exploded. While “bang on” had been used prior to the war, its use as armed services slang popularized the term (“As a realistic tale of low life in London, it is bang on,” 1958).