Wood on Words: Hang in there, woodsmiths

Barry Wood

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most quotable Americans ever, famously observed at the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The latter reference is to a form of execution, which the signers probably faced for their actions had the British won the war.

Despite this gruesome association, “hang” has many other, nonlethal uses. In fact, it’s one of the most popular words among today’s adolescents. For example, my sons’ favorite activity with other people is to “hang out.”

This is not the same as hang out the window or hang out the laundry to dry. It’s slang for “to loiter” or “idle,” and apparently just about anywhere can be a “hangout” these days.

To “hang around with” is similar, although it’s possible to “hang about” or “hang around” alone.

To “hang over” is the same as to “overhang,” but there’s no mistaking a “hangover,” the result of “hanging one on.” Unless it’s the hangover that means “something remaining from a previous time or state,” which sounds more like a leftover.

You can “hang up” a picture on a hook, “hang up” on someone on the phone or get “hung up” in traffic. In the world of slang, a “hang-up” is “a problem or difficulty, especially one of a personal or emotional nature that a person seems unable to deal with.”

And speaking of getting personal, to be “hung up (on)” is also slang for being “neurotic,” “repressed,” “baffled,” “frustrated,” “addicted (to)” or “obsessed (by),” to name a few.

Some people “hang on” for dear life, some “hang on” every word and some “hang on” while awaiting further instructions. But a “hanger-on” is someone who hangs out where he isn’t wanted.

In the world of sports and recreation, “hang time” is achieved by a well-punted football or a basketball player while airborne. “Hang gliders” also enjoy their hang time, but a baseball player who hangs a pitch is likely to regret it.

Surfers “hang five” or “hang ten,” depending upon how many toes are draped over the board.

Of course, when a sports career is over, it’s time to “hang it (or them) up.”

Other idiomatic delights include:

“Not care (or give) a hang about,” to just not care.

“Get the hang of,” to learn or understand.

“Hang tough,” “to take a firm or defiant stand; be inflexible.”

“Hang loose,” to be at ease and unflapple.

“Hang back,” “to be reluctant to advance as from timidity or shyness.”

“Hang a left (or a right),” to change direction while driving.

“Hang fire,” which is “to be slow in doing something” or “to be unsettled or undecided.”

That last one is reminiscent of a “hung jury,” which is one that can’t arrive at a verdict.

Which brings us back to the realm of crime and punishment. Fortunately, hanging is rare these days, and I don’t mean to make light of it.

However, given the sordid history of the practice, I find it curious that the expression to be at “the end of one’s rope” ever caught on.

Stranger still is the advice to someone who expresses such frustration bordering on hopelessness:

“Hang in there!” 

Barry Wood is a Register Star copy editor. Contact him at or read his blog at