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Hanging upon your every word

As some of you may know, I am currently working on my third book called “Why Santa might kill you”. It’s about all the things we accept in modern day life as innocent enough but which in reality have pretty dark origins. You only have to scratch the surface of innocuous characters like Santa Clause or some of our best loved fairy tales and nursery rhymes to discover that under the modern day veneer are some pretty hair raising earlier incarnations.

One of the chapters deals with all those expressions we use in common, every day language which are derived from unsavoury episodes in our history. To give you a taster I thought I would share with you some colloquialisms we still use that have their origins in the practise of public hangings. Gallows humour is one thing. This is gallows linguistics.

This particular segment follows a contemporary account of what happened at a public hanging in London in 1726 by a visiting French cleric called De Saussure.

It was a tradition, especially in York and London that the wagon (carrying the condemned man, the executioner and his entourage) would stop at every pub between the jail and the gallows and this has given us a host of language, mainly associated with excess consumption of alcohol. 

Whenever the wagon pulled up outside another pub, the condemned man and all the guards would dismount, go in the pub, have a few drinks and then stumble back out to move on to the next one. The only people who could not join them in this binge drinking extravaganza were the two men who had to stay sober as they still had a job to do. Namely; the executioner and the chaplain. So, if ever you offer to buy someone a drink and they reply “not for me thanks. I’m on the wagon” they are referencing exactly that phenomenon. Staying “on the wagon” meant that you were unable to join in the drinking on the way to the gallows. Because you were the executioner or chaplain. 

There are other references to these two abstaining souls elsewhere in commonly used expressions. Because the wagon transporting the condemned man used to start and stop so often on its journey, it earned itself the nickname “the lurch”. Describing the lunging motion experienced by all on board when the horses initially pull the wheels into motion, and again when the breaks were applied. So, when the executioner and chaplain stayed on the cart, while everyone else went into a pub, they were “left in the lurch”, an expression often used even today to describe someone who has been abandoned or excluded.

There are other expressions associated with excess alcohol consumption derived from this wagon ride. When recovered alcoholics revert back to drink they are sometimes refered to as having “fallen off the wagon” and there are even suggestions that the term “pub crawl” refers to the pace of the cart moving along the west-ward road out of London to Tyeburne. Conversely, having “one for the road” is also a direct reference to having a drink in a pub before being carted down the road to the gallows.

Du Saussure also refers to the fact that friends and relatives would grab hold of the condemned man’s legs and hang from them with all their weight to make the rope pull tighter and help them to die quicker. So, they did not suffer so much. Sometimes however, the condemned man might not have friends and family in the place where he is due to be executed. If that was the case but he had access to money, he could pay a guard at the prison to do that job instead. So, if you’ve ever wondered why a celebrity surrounded by freeloaders might describe his entourage as “hangers-on” – that’s where the expression comes from. Its people who were not your true friends, who you could pay to hang from your legs to help you die quicker in an execution.

You might get unlucky trying to find a “hanger on” and choose an unscrupulous guard who would take your money and agree he will hang on to your legs, but in reality, all he will do is go through the motions. That means that rather than hang on to you, he will just “pull your leg”. And that is where we get the expression of “he’s just pulling your leg” meaning “he’s just messing around – he’s not being serious”.

Du Saussure also mentions that the condemned man would be wearing a black covering over his head. This was partly to spare the crowds the sight of his contorted face when his eyes started to pop out of their sockets and partly to save the condemned man himself seeing what was coming. It meant that when the cart pulled the floor away from under their feet, that they were taking “a leap into the dark”. Again, a common expression used for venturing into the unknown.

It is true that any property of the condemned man (such as his clothes) if not claimed by a relative, became the property of the hangman. It was one of many ways the executioner got to cash in on his grizzly profession. Another was to take advantage of the regulation that dictated that a hang man’s rope could only be used once, to guarantee it had the integrity not to break during the execution. This meant that after an execution the hang man could retrieve the ropes he had used and sell them on the market. Given that he had not had to outlay any money, it meant that any money he made on the sale was pure profit. Leading to the expression “money for old rope” used to describe any scheme to make easy money or disproportionately high profit margins.

I am sure at some point or another you have heard a man who is well blessed in the trouser department, be referred to by an onlooker as “well-hung”? Apparently, the act of strangulation has the incongruous side effect of making the male organ engorged. Something that was very apparent to crowds who turned out to watch public hangings. It led to us getting this quaint compliment.

You may also have heard someone describe a project which failed or a plan that never came to anything described as having “gone west”. This refers to the route taken from the jails of London to Tyeburn, which was located on the other side of the city’s west gate.

Of course, executions did not always run as smoothly as the one De Saussure witnessed. There were times when they went spectacularly wrong. One of the most famous of all time was the execution of a man called Goodale. When he was hung, due to a freak set of circumstances that were not obvious at the time, when the rope tightened around his neck it jerked his head clean off his shoulders. Like a champagne cork popping from the bottle, sending showers of blood and gore spouting all over the gathered crowd. This turned so many stomachs that questions were asked in parliament and a full enquiry was launched by hangmen and other government officials concerned. The whole nation was transfixed with the story as it appeared in newspapers everywhere for a number of weeks. The incident was nicknamed “The Goodale Mess” – undoubtedly the origins of the expression “God awful mess” used to this day to describe any seen of destructive carnage.

So what do you think? It is intended to entertain as much as educate but this is pretty much the level of the whole book. Give me your thoughts:

Cover mock up of “Why Santa might kill you” by Graham Loveluck-Edwards