Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Well, I’ll Be Hanged. Or is it Hung?

This week we’ve been reading Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the tale of an imaginative spy’s hanging. At one point in the discussion, a student asked an interesting question: “Why do they say, ‘they hanged a man’ instead of ‘they hung a man?'”Rather than just make something up, I decided to go off the lesson plan (winging it is really where the best teaching happens anyway) and help them figure it out. Besides, I wanted to know.

We went online to look for an etymological dictionary and found this. Looking up “hanged” produces this result:

a fusion of O.E. hon “suspend” (transitive, class VII strong verb; past tense heng, pp. hangen), and O.E. hangian (weak, intransitive, past tense hangode) “be suspended;” also probably influenced by O.N. hengja “suspend,” and hanga “be suspended.” All from P.Gmc. *khang-, from PIE *keng– “to waver, be in suspense” (cf. Goth. hahan, Hittite gang– “to hang,” Skt. sankate “wavers,” L. cunctari “to delay;” see also second element in Stonehenge). Hung emerged as pp. 16c. in northern England dial., and hanged endured only in legal language (which tends to be conservative) and metaphors extended from it (I’ll be hanged).

Fascinating for me and also for my kids, many of whom never thought about the fact that each word we use actually has a history and a story about why it is spelled and pronounced the way it is.

Being smart researchers, we decided to check a second source,, which had this:

Hang has two forms for the past tense and past participle, hanged and hung. The historically older form hanged is now used exclusively in the sense of causing or putting to death: He was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. In the sense of legal execution, hung is also quite common and is standard in all types of speech and writing except in legal documents. When legal execution is not meant, hung has become the more frequent form: The prisoner hung himself in his cell.

So, we decided, the correct answer to the original question, as it is for so many is: Lawyers.

The kids enjoyed the exercise, though after having improvised my lesson for the day, I was left to wonder if I had winged it or wung it.


  1. Leave it to the lawyers. However you look at it, they are still swinging or is that swunging?


  2. I’ll go with swinging, though the more I say it, I like swunging. That’s definitely one to keep in mind for a rhyme when poetic license is required.

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