And if not, is there an adequate gender-neutral term that isn't 'executioner'? I'm studying the poem "The Hangman" by Maurice Ogden, the opening line of which is "Into the town, the Hangman came." The word has loaded connotations, so I'm wondering if there's any suitable replacement.
There is no established gender-neutral term for hangman (other than the more generic executioner).
For example, Government of Canada offers comprehensive guidelines for gender-neutral language substitutes. But their guidelines do not consider the word hangman.
A Google Ngram search shows that hangperson is not in print. Even hangwoman is vanishingly rare. You can of course use these terms anyway, as you will undoubtedly be understood.
No gender-neutral alternative of the same specificity seems to be in common use
As indicated by the other comments and MetaEd's answer, there does not seem to be any well-established alternative term that would be unambiguously gender-neutral. (But as indicated by DavePhD's answer, the obvious alterations "hangwoman" and "hangperson" are attested in print, although you can see that in a number of the cited passages the author points out or implies that the word is not usual.)
It is possible for "hangman" to be used to refer to a woman
The word "hangman" may actually be what is called an "exocentric" compound rather than an "endocentric" compound. "Exocentric" compounds are words like "cutthroat" where the compound as a whole refers to something that is different from either of the constituent words. A "cutthroat" is not a type of throat; it is a person who cuts throats. Likewise, "hangman" may in fact be etymologically "a person who hangs men" rather than "a man who hangs."
The argument for this etymological analysis can be found in Piotr Gąsiorowski's comments on the following Languagehat post: Batman.
Piotr Gąsiorowski says:
November 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm
[...] hangman is, etymologically, a pickpocket-type exocentric compound in which the first member is a verb and the second member its object (cf. spendthrift, cutthroat, scarecrow, etc.); so a hangman is ‘one who hangs men (well, women too)’ rather than ‘a man who hangs (people)’.
George Gibbard says:
November 25, 2014 at 1:16 am
Piotr — wait, how do you know that
a hangman is ‘one who hangs men (well, women too)’ rather than ‘a man who hangs (people)’
I’m sure you have your reasons for saying this, I just want to know what they are.
Piotr Gąsiorowski says:
November 25, 2014 at 4:46 am
- The non-existence of parallel formations: all other Early English nouns with -man as the second element have a noun (or sometimes an adjective), not a verb, as their first member. Even ploughman and waccheman ‘watchman’ are N+N, not V+N (like ploughwrighte and waccheword). We have slaughterman but no *slẹ̄man; horsman but no *rīdeman. The same goes for other endocentric compounds. Hangglider is possible today, when zero-derived nouns are indistinguishable from verb stems, but in ME hang(e)man, hong(e)man, heng(e)man, the first member is unambiguously a verb. Some counterexamples admittedly existed, e.g. ME whetstǭn (< OE hwetstān) ‘whetstone’, grīndstǭn and rīdewei ‘riding-path’, OE rīdehere ‘cavalry’ (beside more common rǣdehere, with rǣde ‘mounted’), but they seem to have been rare at the time, and I haven’t been able to found any among ME occupational terms.
- The existence of exocentric parallels (hangdog, whose original meaning was ‘municipal dog-killer’ — a low-prestige profession, it seems).
- The actual (if rare) attestation of the expected exocentric plural in Middle English (hengmannis).
It is true that this etymological information is unlikely to be known by modern English speakers. And in fact, modern speakers form the plural as "hangmen," which could be viewed as evidence that the correct synchronic morphological analysis of "hangman" is as an endocentric compound (for an overview of the arguments about whether irregular inflected forms really are reliable indicators of the grammatical structure of compound words, see this post from Language Log "Systematic irregularization" that RegDwigнt♦ linked to in a comment beneath the following question: Past participle of “fly”).
However, there are some other indications that the word may be gender-neutral:
There are examples of the word "hangman" being used in past literature to refer to a woman. In the children's book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the character Jadis, the "White Witch", is referred to as "the Emperor's hangman".
Even endocentric compounds ending in -man have often been considered to have some degree of gender-neutrality (although this usage is in decline). The following note from dictionary.com confirms both of these points:
The use of -man as the last element in compounds referring to a person of either sex who performs some function ( anchorman; chairman; spokesman) has declined a great deal in recent years.
Hangperson has been used.
The first use I see is an article titled all too common hangperson Library Association Record, Volume 78 (1976).
Next is The New Yorker Volume 58 (1982):
Offscreen, Control Data has a computer game with the peculiar, if commendably nonsexist, name of Hangperson.
So apparently there was a videogame titled "Hangperson" that New York was praising for not being sexist.
Perhaps the same game is being reference by Electronic Education, Volume 2 (1983):
After choosing a word category and selecting the options of English/Spanish, Spanish /English or mixed vocabulary, the student selects either a hangperson word guess game or a pyramid game. The student is given complete instruction on program use as s/he proceeds.
The games are designed to challenge a student to succeed. Hangperson is the traditional guessing game
Then there is a different computer game also titled "Hangperson" mentioned in Science Software, Volume 4 (1988):
Hangperson, a word game designed to foster familiarity with plant physiology terminology
Apart from computer games, Scholars and Personal Computers: Microcomputing in the Human and Social Sciences (1988) seems to discuss computer software for detecting sexist language:
Mailman or hangman" are flagged (substitute mailperson? hangperson?), as is a reference to a husband as "he" which is [at least, so far] proper.
There is also an article titled The Hangpersons of Merdunique Australian Journal of Law and Society (1987):
a number of women from the village of Homme-sur- Femme wrote to the Duke, asking whether the profession of hangman - or, as they said, hangperson - could be opened to females.
A group consisting of one hundred and fifty men and fifty women replied that the occupation of hangperson became a man but not a woman …
A group of about a hundred women then wrote to the Duke, supporting the women of Homme-sur-Femme and urging that men and women be given equal access to all professions, including that of hangperson. "Women should not be deprived", they wrote, "of an opportunity to acquire any skill possessed by a man".
After conferring long into the night with his Council, the Duke issued a proclamation. It said that the Duke accepted the principle of equal access to the skilled professions and that henceforward all posts in those professions would be open equally to men and to women. It added, however, that, since the profession of hangperson had been particularly at issue, he was creating, as an interim measure, one hundred and fifty new positions of hangperson, which would be open only to female applicants.
One hundred and fifty women were appointed and took a six-month training course, in which they became proficient in the skills of hanging, drawing and quartering, as well as boiling in oil, beheading, strangling, garrotting, cutting off of hands, noses and ears, and the gouging out of eyes, not to mention flogging, flaying, racking and the use of thumbscrews.
The article "Guinea Pigs" and the Czech Novel "Under Padlock" in the 1970s: From the Modern Absolutism to the Postmodernist Absolute Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature vol. 37,(1983) says:
a college for prospective "hangpersons" is established
The Source of Apathy and Lack of Credibility The Linacre Quarterly: Vol. 55 (1988) says:
physicians are the new hangmen. (Make that "hangpersons".)
The Death Penalty as a Controversy over Social Values Albany Law Review, vol. 54 (1990):
There are countries that refuse to extradite criminals who flee these shores; they will not deliver human beings to the American hangperson.
Alternatively, there is a gender-neutral term in the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1889):
- One who hangs persons, or inflicts the penalty of hanging; a hangman
Similarly, A Dictionary of the English Language originally by Samuel Johnson, and edited by the Rev. H. J. Todd in 1827, second edition, vol. II says:
HA'NGER One who causes others to be hanged
There are a few obsolete terms that could be substituted, just for fun (none would be familiar enough nowadays to be clear to the general public). All citations/etymologies are from the Oxford English Dictionary (probably the only dictionary that preserves these very outdated terms, but unfortunately behind a pay-wall):
boie, n. Obs. rare. An executioner, hangman.
Etymology is unclear, but may come from "Old French buie, boye fetter, chain." Latest attestation way back in c.1320.
derrick, n. †1. A hangman; hanging; the gallows.
Apparently derives from the surname of an actual c.1600 Tyburn hangman. This meaning is preserved to some extent in oil derricks and the like, which are hoisting mechanisms. Apparently the term went from being used for the hangman, to being used for the gallows, to being used for any similar structure. A gruesome etymology to consider for anyone using such a machine! Last citation in the OED meaning hangman is in mid-17th century.
ketch, n. The hangman.
Also derived from the name of a notorious hangman, in this case Jack Ketch. The full name was still in current use as a slang term for a hangman at the turn of the 20th century, when this particular OED entry was created, but I think the shorter version fits better with the gender-neutral requirement.
Incidentally, I note that the OED has an entry for hang-woman, with two attestations from the 1880s (one hyphenated and one compound).
Finally, if novel words are of interest to anyone reading this post (I presume the OP's interest has been satisfied), I would propose hangster as somewhat more felicitous-while-simultaneously-ominous (due to the rhyme with gangster) than hangperson. The -ster ending is productive in English, and has a curious history with regard to gender: it was originally a feminine ending but transitioned to gender-neutral and then somewhat masculine, and today is again mostly neutral in usage (e.g. hipsters can be either male or female).
To add to other responses, I agree that the gender-neutral word would fit well as hanger if hangman is too gender-specific.
I'm surprised that hangestere was not mentioned in any comment or answer, however.
Hangman: public executioner, mid-14c. (mid-13c. as a surname), from hang (v.) + man (n.). As the name of a spelling game, by 1951. Hangestere "female executioner" is found mid-15c. Etymonline
Although, granted, it seems to have lived and died in Middle English.
Middle English dictionary here says:
hangestere (n.) - A female executioner.
c1450 Pilgr.LM (Cmb Ff.5.30) 144: 'At the laste j wole hange hem my self as j haue hanged many an oother.' 'Now,' quod j, 'art thow an hangestere?' 'Ye, certeyn,' quod she.
So, given the word hangestere's existence and hangman's perceived gender, it seems that hanger is related but decidedly neutral in today's English. And perhaps most importantly, it will be understood.