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Q From Dennis J Hudson, London: A Sunday newspaper article recently claimed that hangover has nothing to do with alcohol but refers to Victorian workhouses, in which inmates slept by draping their arms over a stretched-out rope which they ‘hung over’ as it supported them. Is there any truth in this?

A None whatsoever, but it’s yet another good example of people jumping to completely the wrong conclusion on the basis of knowing a bit of esoteric information.

There really was once a sleeping system like that. The principal reference I have for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London of 1933: “At the Twopenny Hangover, the lodgers sit in a row on a bench; there is a rope in front of them, and they lean on this as though leaning over a fence. A man, humorously called the valet, cuts the rope at five in the morning. I have never been there myself, but Bozo had been there often. I asked him whether anyone could possibly sleep in such an attitude, and he said that it was more comfortable than it sounded — at any rate, better than bare floor.” It’s mentioned in a work of a century earlier, The Magic Skin by Honoré de Balzac, which was translated into English by Ellen Marriage in 1895: “We ... made it a point of honour to find out whether you were roosting in a tree in the Champs-Elysées, or in one of those philanthropic abodes where the beggars sleep on a twopenny rope.”

The connection sounds pretty convincing, with Orwell actually using hangover to describe the method. But the historical evidence for the word in the alcoholic sense shows that it’s from the idea of something that remains or is left over — a remainder or survival or after-effect — not of a person literally being hung over anything.

Several subscribers have since told me that the same story has also been advanced as the supposed origin of to be able to sleep on a clothesline, meaning to be so utterly tired one could sleep anywhere. There might be an association here, though it’s impossible to be sure. But the image behind sleeping on a clothesline is that one lies along it, as in a very thin hammock, being too dead tired to move about and so fall off. It seems not to fit the situation.

More folk etymologies vanquished!

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 29 Apr. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 29 April 2006.