The Grammarphobia Blog

Hanging up one’s spurs

Q: A techie at the university where I teach told me that he was going to hang up his mouse, which spurred me to look up the origin of “hang up one’s spurs.” Google sent me to the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, when spurs of the vanquished were hung up. But that isn’t quite the modern sense of retiring. Is there another origin?

A: In the engagement, also known as the Battle of Courtrai (now Kortrijk, Belgium), the Flemish victors collected the gilded spurs of the French knights killed on the field.

These trophies of war were then displayed in a nearby church. Hence the fight is often called the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

But that’s not the origin of the expression “hang up one’s spurs” (or boots, guns, etc.), which generally means to retire.

We’re talking here about two different traditions in which two different things are hung up—(1) war trophies and (2) tools of the trade. To get to the bottom of these traditions, we have to go back to biblical and classical times.

It’s likely that for as long as there have been wars, the victors have taken the armor of the defeated—the weapons, shields, helmets, spurs, heraldic banners, and so on—as trophies.

In an 1878 issue of Popular Science, Herbert Spencer wrote about this ancient tradition:

“The Philistines, besides otherwise displaying relics of the dead Saul, put ‘his armor in the house of Ashtaroth.’ By the Greeks the trophy, formed of arms, shields, and helmets, taken from the defeated, was consecrated to some divinity; and the Romans deposited the spoils brought back from battle in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. … Hundreds of gilt spurs of French knights vanquished by the Flemish in the battle of Courtrai were deposited in the church of that place.”

But the notion of hanging up one’s own spurs (or gun, or sword, or other implement) is very different from displaying the spurs of another—someone defeated in battle.

Today, to “hang up one’s spurs” (or the tools of one’s trade) means to retire from the field, to give up, or to turn one’s attentions elsewhere.

This too is a tradition dating back to classical times.

The Roman poet Horace, who lived in the first century BC, refers to this tradition in his “Ode XXVI (To Venus),” narrated by a flirtatious ladies’ man who’s tired of fighting love’s battles.

With the lines nunc arma defunctumque bello / barbiton hic paries habebit, the narrator decides to retire metaphorically from the field of battle and hang up his weapon—the lyre with which he does his wooing.

In discussing that passage, the Latin scholars Maurice Balme and James Morwood add this footnote: “When a soldier retired, he would dedicate his weapons to Mars by hanging them on the temple wall.” (Oxford Latin Course, Part 3, 2nd ed., 1997.)

In Horace’s ode, the narrator is similarly retiring his lyre (his weapon in wooing) and dedicating it to Venus.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary to “hang up” one’s sword, gun, boots, or some other implement means to give up using it, to give up the game, or even to die.

The OED’s first such reference was recorded in early Middle English in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “Ich mai honge vp min ax, febliche ic abbe agonne.” (“I may hang up my axe, feebly have I gone on.”)

A similar expression occurs in a translation of Jean Nicolas de Parival’s Historie of This Iron Age (1656 ): “Before we sheathe our sword, and hang it upon the naile.”

The OED has 19th-century examples including “hung up his sword” (1826) and “hang my gun up over the chimney” (1847).

More recently, the OED cites a reference from a 1963 issue of the Times of London: “Johnson, Miller, and Johnston hung up their boots soon afterwards.”

This explains why today we might say that a retiring doctor hangs up her stethoscope, that a carpenter hangs up his hammer, or even that a techie hangs up his mouse.

But sometimes the “hanging up” is even more permanent than retiring. Oxford quotes the grammarian Otto Jespersen as writing in 1926 that “to hang up the spoon” meant to die.

We found other instances in which death was associated with the hanging up of something used in life. Most notable was the medieval English custom of honoring a dead knight by hanging above his tomb the sword, spurs, shield, and other equipment he once used.

In his book Costume in England (1846), Frederick William Fairholt describes “the old custom of burying a knight with his martial equipments over his grave, originally consisting of his shield, sword, gloves, and spurs; the boots being a later and more absurd introduction.”

This custom survived into the 18th century. John Chambers, in A General History of the County of Norfolk, Vol. 2 (1829), describes the tomb of Sir Nicholas Garrard, who died in 1727 and was buried in a church in the village of Langford:

“Opposite to this monument, against the south wall, are fixed several insignia of honour, as the shield, mantle, torce, helmets, spurs, and sword, and several banners.” (A torce or torse was a band for securing a knight’s crest to his helmet.)

This explains why someone who does battle in the trenches (or cubicles) of the computer age might “hang up his mouse” on retiring. But we doubt that a techie would want one hung over his grave.

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