The first time I saw this word might have been on a bus or subway train, if only because that’s where I do most of my reading, usually seated but sometimes standing, gripping a bar with the other hand or just riding like a surfer. Or I might have seen in back before I was regularly commuting, perhaps in my youth. I don’t rightly recall. But I do recall wondering how it was pronounced. “Straffanjer”? “Stra-fanger”? I wasn’t entirely sure what it signified, either. Something to do with commuting. But it looked like a family name – like Taittinger (another pronunciation problem, since it’s a brand of champagne), Basinger, Nuthanger (a farm in Watership Down), Behringer, Levenger… Names that might make you think of products and people with a certain classic something, or if not classic then at least quaint.
The first time I saw it wasn’t in this quote from Punch, but it was a similar context, and you can see where I would have been a little uncertain: “I am a Straphanger. I am one of a million swaying souls who travel underground to the vast city.” And one of the reasons I would have been uncertain is that on buses, subways, et cetera, one simply never hangs onto straps anymore. Metal bars, certainly. Swing-down metal handholds, yes, on some kinds of subway cars. Swinging metal things attached by metal coils, sometimes. But straps? How very, very last-century. As in a whole century ago, even.
Do I go too far back? Are you having trouble picturing the masses cramming into subways on their way to work in 1911? That was, after all, a time when horses were still common on the streets. Yes, well, true, as you can see, for instance, in a video of San Francisco in 1905 and 1906. But look at the cable-cars: quite full of people, sitting and standing, and the standing ones had to hang onto something. But some commuters were already riding subways; by 1911 London had had underground railways for nearly half a century and New York had had them for seven years – see the maps from those times: London 1908 and New York 1906. The quote from Punch above? It dates from 1905. Great public transportation networks were essential to the growth of these cities into the modern metropolises they are. And they are still essential to their functioning. A city without sufficient public transportation infrastructure is like a city without sufficient water infrastructure; designing for cars, cars, and cars only is like designing for people to drill their own wells and put in their own septic tanks.
Not that straphangers – or strap-hangers, as the word is often written – are (or were) only on subways. One may be standing on a bus or streetcar (or cable-car). Of course, it’s always better to be sitting if one can; hanging one’s parts from a strap (and risking a fall on the prat) may conduce to more anger… who likes being sardined? It gets to be quite a circus, and it’s easily to become a bit stroppy. But it’s also better to be travelling smoothly and efficiently, and to be able to read while doing so, than to be caged in a two-ton metal box by oneself, barely moving and forced to grip a wheel and fix one’s eyes on the sea of metal boxes between one and one’s destination. With the amount of money we squander on such extravagances, we can certainly afford to spend more on public transport, so that such cramped standing may generally be obviated – and the roads will be clearer too.
But I digress. I shouldn’t get stroppy and harangue you. This word, in spite of the standing and swaying and crowding it bespeaks, is a classic, a word that has an air of old leather – gripped by many hands, perhaps. You can see the h sticking up like an arm to grip. The word’s parts hang together, if awkwardly, like two people forced to stand closer together than social convention would normally suggest, but at least they are both time-honoured English words that have always meant about what they mean now, though strap is a variant form of strop, which we now use to refer to that thing with which one sharpens razors – or, rather, we don’t, because no one sharpens razors anymore, not any more than one hangs from leather straps except in circus acts. The reference is already of a bygone time, like talking of dialling on one’s cell phone. Which, by the way, it’s legal for straphangers to do, unlike for drivers.