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shameless pleading


Geez, when I was a kid, we just called ’em shivs.

Dear Word Detective: I have been reading an excellent book, A Conspiracy of Paper, set in the early 1700’s in London, England. In this book, the hero frequently uses the word “hangar” to mean “sword.” Sometimes he also uses the word “sword” to mean “sword,” so there may be a small difference. I have looked through your archives and see that you have addressed the uncertain history of the word “hangar” meaning a shed or storage place, especially for airplanes, but I see no mention of the use of this word to mean “sword.” Can you shed any light on this usage? — Jim Brown.

Of course. Um, I wrote about “hangar”? News to me. Let’s see. Well, by golly, so I did. You’d be amazed, incidentally, at how often I resort to searching my own website. And by “amazed” I mean, of course, “deeply disturbed.” Anyway, it was way back in 2001, so it’s not like it was just last week, although I can’t claim to remember what I wrote last week, either.

To say that the origin of “hangar” in the “airplane storage” sense is “uncertain” is a serious understatement. It’s close to a complete mystery. As I said back in 2001 (yup, pulling a Jonah Lehrer flashback here), “We do know that ‘hangar’ first appeared in English around 1852, used to mean a covered shed for the storage of carriages, and that its use to mean ‘large building used to store aircraft’ dates back to 1902. We also know that our ‘hangar’ was borrowed directly from the French ‘hangar,’ which in turn came from the Middle French ‘hanghart.’ The trail gets murky at this point, but one possible source for those French words is the Middle Dutch ‘ham-gaerd,’ meaning ‘enclosure near a house.'”

But wait! We have good news! I’m not sure why the author of the book you’ve been reading spelled the word “hangar,” but the word he almost certainly meant is “hanger,” a clarification which opens up the wonderful world of actual answers to your question. (In the author’s defense, I should point out that the word was apparently sometimes spelled “hangar” back in the 16th century, so perhaps he was just trying to be historically accurate.)

A “hanger” is, in the most basic sense, simply “one who hangs” (such as a “paper-hanger,” installing wallpaper), or something that hangs from something (such as curtains) or from which something hangs (such as a clothes hanger). Most of the sub-definitions of “hanger” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are pretty boring, but I was intrigued by definition 2.e. of “hanger,” which is “A pendant catkin.” A “catkin” turns out to be not a small cat (fortunate, considering the context), but a cylindrical cluster of flowers produced by some plants (such as willow trees). The “catkin” does take its name from the Dutch “katteken” (kitten) because it is thought to resemble a kitten’s tail.

Meanwhile, back at “hanger,” the term was apparently used in the late 16th century to mean “A loop or strap on a sword-belt from which the sword was hung; often richly ornamented” (OED) (“I give unto my nephew … my guilt wrought sword and the girdle and hangers to it,” 1648). So that pretty securely ties “hanger” to swords. But it gets better. It turns out that much earlier, around 1481, the word “hanger” was used to mean a kind of short sword, originally worn on one’s belt (presumably from a “hanger”). Judging by the citations for the word in the OED, the size of a “hanger” sword fell somewhere between a dagger and a full-size sword, and a “hanger” was often used as a sort of sidearm by a combatant whose primary weapon was a bit bigger (“Their ordinary Arms are the Hanger, the Sagay, which is a very light Half-Pike, and the Bow,” 1698). So it makes perfect sense for the author of that book to use both “sword” and “hanger” in sword-rich contexts.

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