Why is there a difference between ‘hung’ and ‘hanged’?
If you have an insufferable pedant in your life – and if you don’t, consider the blog you’re reading; you may be the insufferable pedant – then you know about the difference between hung and hanged. In the history of English, the verb to hang has traditionally been divided into two different kinds of past tense, with hanged referring to the method of execution and hung referring to everything else. The hat was hung; the jury was hung; but the man was hanged. How has this come to be the case?
As it turns out, more than one form of the word hang contributed to the word we use today. Hang has several separate, but similar-sounding, antecedents in Old English and Old Norse. One such antecedent was a strong verb, which means that a change of tense was marked by changing the vowel (as with sing, sang, sung); another was a weak verb, which means that a change of tense was marked by adding a suffix (as with walk, walked, walked). Old English had a preponderance of strong verbs, but the language switched over to weak verbs before the Middle Ages. Today, most verbs in English have a weak past tense, but some of the oldest verbs in the language preserve a strong past tense from the time of their origin. This is the case for the verb to hang, for which a strong inflection triumphed in general use. But the version with a weak inflection persisted in the legal context of a death sentence – because it was less common and judges liked its archaic sound.
The reading public’s love (then as now) of lurid tales of murder, treason, and high justice may have helped to spread awareness of the judicial term. A search of Early English Books Online, a database of literary texts from the early modern period, shows an overwhelming preference for the phrase hung by his side over hanged by his side, but for the phrase hanged by the neck over hung by the neck. For the latter phrase, the context is usually a direct transcription of a judicial sentence, for example:
I must pronounce the Judgement of the Court, which is, That you go to the place from whence you came, and so to that place of execution which shall be appointed to you by Authority, there to be hanged by the neck till you be dead; and the Lord have mercy on your soul.
The literature of true crime in the first age of general readership was abundant and wide-ranging, encompassing biographies of criminals, ballads of murder, dramatizations of sentencing, ghoulish descriptions of spectacular punishment following sentencing (entrails, necks; heads, pikes), and above all, accounts of criminal trials in action. It disseminated the stylized language of the courts, incidentally foreshadowed the future success of the Law and Order franchise, and helped to affirm a semantic distinction that has become a beloved pillar of grammatical pedantry.