“So,” I said to Albert Denton, of the Sheffield branch of the Order of Logogustation, “how about that election of yours?” We were lunching at a restaurant on Spadina on the first day of the E8 word tasting summit (the eight main English-speaking countries), held this year in Toronto.
“We haven’t got a proper government,” he said. “Our parliament’s bloody well hung. Pardon.” He ate a spoonful of soup from a bowl the size of his head.
Also at our table was Ross Ewage, who heard his cue. “Well hung?!” he said. “Then I’m sure they’ll all be men enough to rise to the occasion.”
Albert glanced at Ross. “And you should be bloody well hanged.” Ross raised an eyebrow and mounted an assault on his soup.
“So nice of those judges of past centuries to have used the archaic weak form of the past tense in passing sentences so we could have that distinction persisting to the present,” I observed.
“Ironically,” Albert said, “the weak form was the intransitive.” He paused for another sip. “Our modern hang actually came from three different verbs, as you perhaps know: an Old English strong transitive, an Old English weak intransitive, and an Old Norse causal verb. But in the end they all merged into one… and, funny enough, though they all merged into the weak form, they moved towards strong vowel-changing inflexion, and the past tense hung was actually invented then by analogy. As they say, Who would have thunk it?” (This discourse was given an extra resonance by Albert’s Sheffield accent, which has u‘s as in hung and thunk said like the vowel in book.)
“So,” I said, “three parties, as it were, all coming together to a common agreement by finding a third way… with just a little dissenter off to one side.”
Albert allowed himself a chuckle. “As if the Tories and Labour got together and shut out the Lib Dems.”
“I’m quite amused at the level of dismay your situation has been greeted with in England,” I said. “It’s rather common in Canada, with four parties sitting and a first-past-the-post electoral system. Some people say minority government should be the accepted norm, most likely with set times between elections to preclude such things as bullying the other parties by making any chancy vote a confidence vote. But I really do think an important difference in the way we see things is the term we use. Minority government: Well, it’s still government, and in Canada, minority doesn’t have such a bad sound to it, since nearly – or perhaps actually – a majority of our citizens are members of identifiable minority groups.” I looked around us; more than half the people in the restaurant were East Asian. “Whereas hung parliament means it’s suspended, hanging in midair, perhaps by the neck…”
“Or it has the sword of Damocles hanging over it,” Albert said. “It’s as though the election campaign was a great binge, and now we’re all hung over from it. Well, it could get to be like game meat that’s been hung too long… It gets very ‘high,’ which means ‘rancid’. But the term hung parliament only dates back to the last hung parliament we had, in 1974. Simon Hoggart, of The Guardian, was really the one who spread it. It just happens that in England, after an election, the ruling party doesn’t automatically change; there has to be a resignation or vote of no confidence first, which is a matter of course most of the time but not when, as in 1974, no one had a majority to force the loser out. And Edward Heath, prime minister at the time, tried to stay and build a coalition. Well, his party did get more votes, though fewer seats. In the end he had to resign in favour of Harold Wilson. But it was contentious, as I hope this one will not be.”
“Well,” I said, “one would think that everyone would want those who are hung to agree.”
“Speaking of which,” said Jess, appearing over my shoulder, “I’m hungry. Sorry I’m a bit late.” She grabbed the remaining chair. “I see it’s pho all around. What’s the topic of discussion?”
“Hung,” said Ross, with extra lung.
“Huh,” Jess said. “What’s the preposition?”
“An indecent one,” Ross said.
“Well, is it hung up, hung out, hung over, hung around…?”
“Well,” said Albert, “we’ve hung in there.”
“A couple of blocks that way –” Jess jerked her thumb towards the door – “there are paintings, hung by the curators with care. And no doubt curtains hung too.”
“Down the block, I think I saw a store called Hung Far Low,” Ross snickered.
“Yeah, you probably didn’t,” said Jess, “though this is Chinatown, with lots of Vietnamese places, too. Like this one. You’ll see Hung here and there.” She held up the menu that the waiter had just handed her. “I case you forgot where we were.” The restaurant’s name was, of course, Pho Hung.
Thanks to Sheila Protti for asking for something on hung parliament.