After an excess of revelry, some of us have on occasion been found to hang over a toilet bowl, or come to consciousness with head hammering like Hanover during Allied bombing runs. Some way to ring in the new year, with new ringing in the old ears! After more than governed intake, one gets more than governable Kopfweh and Katzenjammer! And yet, even though the threat of it may hang over your head like the sword of Damocles as you have that ill-thought-out eighth drink (without a thought of the ill outcome), you still rush headlong towards ebriety like a car towards a cliff… and end up with your front wheels hanging over, spinning uselessly. Just like your head.

I particularly like the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “2. The unpleasant after-effects of (esp. alcoholic) dissipation.” So dry… and dissipation is so seldom heard in that use here and now. But did you notice that that’s definition 2? The first definition, with citations slightly pre-dating the one we know and love, is “A thing or person remaining or left over; a remainder or survival, an after-effect”: something still hanging around, carried over. Once the alcoholic sense caught on, it reflected back on the first sense, so that whenever one refers to anything as a hangover of or from something, there is a clear aura of paying the piper after a few too many loony tunes.

Funny to think, though, that this word has only been with us for just over a century. I’m quite certain that people got drunk before 1904. Now, though, we seldom use any other term, aside from cute references to “feeling a little off” and so on. Is there something about hangover that just seems appropriate?

Well, hang surely has the right kind of tone – it rings, it smacks of execution and hangnails, it has echoes of harangue and dang, clang, bang, et cetera. And over carries tastes of finality as well as of impending and threat. The word, when said, is strong on the first syllable and then gives a weak double-beat to follow up. It’s not really a dactyl, though, a three-time beat; it’s more like a half note and two quarter notes. It’s a bit like the sound of a hammer being let drop: a big bang and then two little bounces. Or would that be more like a bang and a whimper…

2 responses to “hangover

  1. But… what did they say before 1904?

    • As far as I can tell, there wasn’t a single specific word that was used – general mentions of headache, feeling unwell, being under the weather perhaps, that sort of thing. I don’t have a base of clear, coherent data on this… Worth keeping an eye open when reading older works in which people get drunk.

      Just incidentally, if you chart “hangover” at http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/ , you will see a striking rise in usage starting around 1920 and soaring through the 1930s to a crest in the early 1940s, since when it has knocked around a little but generally increased a bit.

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