The Grammarphobia Blog

Do your bangs stay bung?

Q: Why does the word “bangs” refer to a fringe of hair cut straight across the forehead?

A: The use of “bangs” (or “bang”) for that short fringe of hair originated in the US in the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the usage has its roots in “bangtail,” an equine term seen on both sides of the Atlantic. So let’s start our investigation in the stables.

The word “bangtail” is defined in the OED as “a (horse’s) tail, of which the hair is allowed to grow to a considerable length and then cut horizontally across so as to form a flat even tassel-like end.”

The dictionary notes that the term has also been used in Australia for cattle with tails cut that way, and in the US as slang for a horse, especially a race horse.

The earliest citation for “bangtail” in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from a Scottish journal, suggesting that the term may have first reared its head in the British Isles.

Green’s cites an 1812 issue of the Edinburgh Review that mentions a stud horse named Bangtail, but the name surely came from an even earlier use of the term.

Through a Google search we found a comic British story about fox-hunting, published in 1851, in which “bang-tail” appears least seven times in reference to tails as well as horses.

The story, “Turning Out a Bagman,” by a writer signed “B.P.W.,” is about two London greenhorns who are on vacation and want to hire a pair of hunters.

The showily groomed horses they hire are called “bang-tails,” and are described as having “such flowing bang-tails as at once stamped them in the eyes of our friends as ‘out-and-out’ thorough-breds.”

The story is chockfull of slang (like “bagman” to mean “fox”), which may explain the repeated use of “bang-tail” instead of “horse.”

Apparently it didn’t take long for “bang” to graduate from horse tails to human hair.

We found an 1844 travel book, Revelations of Russia by Charles Frederick Henningsen, that mentions a man’s hair cut “somewhat in the fashion of a thorough-bred’s ‘bang-tail.’ ”

In another travel book we came across an 1849 entry that describes a woman whose hair was braided in back and “cut in bang style” in front.

The OED’s earliest citation for the human usage is from a letter written in 1878 by Frances M. A. Roe, author of Army Letters From an Officer’s Wife: “It had a heavy bang of fiery red hair.” (The “bang” was on a face mask in a shop window in Helena, in the Montana Territory.)

Another American, William Dean Howells, also used the word in his book The Undiscovered Country (1880): “His hair cut in front like a young lady’s bang.”

A Google search turned up a plural reference in an 1883 article from the New York Times. A Catholic priest, lecturing Sunday school children, “condemned the fashion of wearing ‘bangs’ in severe terms.”

A matching adjective (as in “banged” hair) and verb (to “bang” or cut the front hair straight across) also emerged in the 1880s, according to citations in the OED.

Here are a couple of examples: “He was bareheaded, his hair banged even with his eyebrows in front” (from the Century Magazine, 1882), and “They wear their … hair ‘banged’ low over their foreheads” (from Harper’s Magazine, 1883).

So it would appear that the verb “bang” (to cut hair straight across) emerged after the hairstyle and not before, unless there are earlier verb references we haven’t found.

That still leaves us with a question: Why did “bang” mean bluntly cut?

Both Green’s and the OED indicate that since the late 1500s the verb “bang” has meant to hit or thump, and the noun “bang” has meant a blow or a thump.

And “bang” has been used adverbially since the late 18th century, the OED says, to mean “all of a sudden,” or “suddenly and abruptly, all at once, as in ‘to cut a thing bang off.’ ”

Since the bangs on a person’s forehead, like a horse’s banged tail, end abruptly—you might say with a  “bang!”—perhaps the word is simply a case of creative English.

A collection of humor pieces, Wit and Humor of the Age (1883), takes the creativity a step further. In a story by  Melville D. Landon, one chambermaid asks another “if she banged her hair.”

“Yes, Mary,” the first chambermaid says. “I bang my hair—keep a banging it, but it don’t stay bung!”

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