You’re Pulling My Leg

‘I say, would you mind awfully attaching some

urchins to my breeches?’

Guided tours of heritage sites can be a bountiful source of BS history. A friend and I have even come up with a game called ‘Hence the Expression’, where we’ll compete to dream up with the most fanciful origin possible for a given word or phrase. Unfortunately the real tour guides are sometimes beyond parody. A favourite of mine involved the claim that big dining tables historically had reversible surfaces in order that the household dogs could ‘clean’ the table with their tongues between courses. See what I mean?

Another slightly more plausible example is that sometimes given for the expression ‘hangers on’ (and to a lesser extent, ‘pulling one’s leg’); that it derives from the individuals paid by a criminal’s family to pull down on them during their hanging, and thereby minimise their suffering. I last heard this during a tour of Lincoln Castle, where it’s a bit of a staple claim, even appearing on the wall of the cafe. Tastefully, it specifies that ‘hangers on’ were children.

A quick note with respect to my title above; although ‘hangers on’ remains the subject of this post, I have come across a few instances of this explanation being given for the expression ‘to pull one’s leg’.

To start with, I should concede that the basic premise is sound; people did occasionally attempt to hasten the death of the convicted, although as the linked source points out, it wasn’t usually desired by the authorities. This simply provides a convincing basis for a story like this, it does NOT make it true. It also does not provide evidence for the veritable trade in ‘hangers on’ implied by the claim.

Interestingly, the phrase does appear in my favourite period slang dictionary (1699), but not in its own right:

‘Burre, a Hanger on or Dependent.’

We can presume, therefore, that it was a common phrase in the standard English of the day, and that there was no need to spell out either its meaning or origin. In fact we can trace it back as far as 1549, in Hugh Latimer’s ‘Sermons’:

‘But your Majesty hath divers of your chaplains, well learned men, and of good knowledge: and yet ye have some that be bad enough, hangers-on of the court; I mean not those.’

The term doesn’t appear in any dictionary, slang or otherwise. Indeed, why would it? The etymology here is surely self-explanatory. A ‘hanger-on’ is a sycophant who almost literally ‘hangs-on’ to the coat-tails of a well-off and/or well-known person. Just as a parasitical animal physically hangs on to its host. There’s no need to associate ‘hang’ in the sense of ‘attach’ to ‘hang’ in terms of the form of execution. Possible irony aside, there’s also no connection between the supposed origin and the meaning of the saying – a metaphorical hanger on attaches himself to the great and good; a literal one to the lowest of the low.

Not only that, but the French-derived synonym ‘dependant’ happens to also mean to ‘hang down’ or ‘hang on’, as in ‘pendant’ (as noted here), backing up the idea that ‘hanger-on’ is purely descriptive.

As usual, I’ve had a bash at finding early references, and the furthest I can push this one back is a piece of fiction that although set in the 1750s, was published very recently – in 2001.

‘the friends and relatives and hired ‘hangers-on’ hauling on the feet to hurry death. . . ‘
(‘Slammerkin’ by Emma Donoghue, p.76)

The first non-fiction cite is a throwaway line, given without reference, in a local history book ‘Sentenced to Cross the Raging Sea’ (2004).

‘…it was customary to accelerate the business of hanging by means of the poor victims having their ‘leg pulled’ by a ‘hanger on.’

Everything else post-dates these appearances in print. How the idea spread is anyone’s guess; I tend to think that these trite origin stories started as jokes, like oral email forwards. They provide easy to understand, evocative and memorable ‘bites’ of history, particularly where they relate to the dark side of the past and allow us to feel superior to our barbarous forebears. The problem is that they’re often bollocks. So, the next time a tour guide or some bloke down the pub tells you where a particular saying came from, question it: The more convenient and appealing it sounds, the less likely it is to be true!