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Bangs is the AmE for fringe when we are referring to hair.

Bangs are hair that is cut so that it hangs over your forehead.

  • My bangs were cut short, but the rest of my hair was long. ( Collins Dictionary)

Its origin is probably from the bang-tail of horses and its original usage was in the singular as stated by Etyonline:

Bangs:

"hair cut straight across so as to form a fringe over the forehead," 1878 (in singular, bang), American English, attested from 1832 of horses (bang-tail), perhaps from notion of abruptness (as in bang off "immediately, without delay," though this expression is attested only from 1886).

The plural form seems to have appeared just a few years later according to Grammarphobia:

  • 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.

Is there a reason why the usage of this term, unlike in BrE, took the plural form to refer to a fringe?

6
+100

Back in England…

Among the works of the English equine anatomist and painter George Stubbs (1724–1806), the majority shows a horse whose tail flows naturally or, in the case of hunters and carriage horses, is docked or bobbed, i.e., partially or almost completely amputated while still a foal.

This practice, at least in the minds of horse owners, served a practical purpose: it kept a carriage horse's tail from catching in the harness or a hunter's in brambles and underbrush. A hunter whose tail had been docked more than half its anatomical length also left it looking more like a decorative tassle, which seemed to appeal to certain of the landed gentry.

A third option, however, was purely aesthetic and certainly more humane: a horse's tail was banged, i.e., cut straight across in varying closeness to the dock, but never cutting into actual flesh and bone. These horses were called bang tails, or in a closed compound, bangtails. In 1789, Stubbs painted just such a horse.

**enter image description here**

George Stubbs, Horse with Spaniel. Source: Everett Fahy, Francis Watson, Wrightsman Collection: Paintings, drawings, sculpture. V, 213f., 1973.

Depicted with a King Charles spaniel, hardly a working breed, the bangtail could have been a winner in trotting races or only used for leisurely rides about the estate. The banged tail is just for show.

The Grammarphobia blog points out that bangtail first appeared in print in 1811, but Stubbs’ painting suggests an older practice, but likely only among a leisure class whose horses may never had had to do any work besides trotting. In fact, Bangtail, or Lady Bangtail for a mare, became a popular name for racehorses.

That in distant lands even humans could wear blunt-cut hairstyles did not escape Charles F. Henningsen during a sojourn in Russia, as he describe's a young man’s hair:

…it is cut somewhat in the fashion of a thorough-bred's “bang” tail— Charles F. Henningsen, Revelations of Russia, 1844.

This suggests what we would call today a bowl cut, where the hair is blunt-cut, i.e. banged, straight across in the same length, as if a bowl had been placed over the head. The quotation marks, however, are significant: throughout the history of bangtail and associated words bang as verb or as noun, countable or uncountable, writers will use quotation marks to indicate that the word is (1) equestrian jargon not likely familiar to readers, or (2) one they see as a neologism unfamiliar even to themselves.

It should be superfluous to point out that in the 1920s when young urban women in the UK saw picture of American film stars sporting new short hairstyles, they did not resort to the hypermasculine world of horsebreeding, but chose instead a more domestic metaphor to describe them: fringe. There isn't anything obvious in Americans doing just the opposite.

In America

Eighteenth century immigrants from the British Isles would have brought familiar equestrian terminology with them to America, but would adapt it to the new environment. As they attained weath and leisure, they would also import the horses themselves from England.

In 1877, Wallace's Monthly, the premier equestrian magazine of the United States at the time, devotes a commissioned engraving and a lengthy article — which ends in a touching obituary — to Consternation, a thoroughbred stallion brought from Yorkshire in 1845. Winner of countless races — trotting races in those days — Consternation had also covered over 400 mares in his illustrious career.

enter image description here

Consternation was then four years old, in half-racing form, with banged tail, and appeared almost exactly as he is represented in the picture, as if he was born to wear a saddle and bridle (a beast of burden may wear a harness). — Wallace's Monthly, vol. 3(1877), 866.

The term bangtail became so associated with racehorses like Consternation that by the 1870s it was a catchy, generic term for them, whether the horses in question actually had banged tails or not. Thus a California newspaper could proudly proclaim:

THE BANGTAILS. LOS ANGELES HORSES ON THEIR WAY TO VICTORY Headline, Los Angeles Herald, 3 April, 1881.

And a decade earlier, a bibliophile in Northern Virginia could renounce such excitement for his beloved volumes:

He [a lover of books] needs no … foppery of dress or equipage, no bang-tailed steeds to bear him to the races… — Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, 15 Nov. 1871.

In the 1870s, a Montana rancher named a ridge along some foothills near Bozeman Bangtail Ridge because its abrupt end abutting onto a small plain resembled the tails of his horses, or at least the ones in equestrian magazines.

In America, then, the bangtail had become a racehorse, but it's doubtful its original meaning was particularly known outside equestrian circles.

Vienna by way of Chicago and Baltimore

When a young woman wrote the Baltimore American in 1873 enquiring about hairstyles in Vienna, “whether the women were pretty” or only “youthful prototypes of the stout red-faced German women who arrive in emigrant steamers,” the correspondent in the imperial capital answered:

How do the Vienna ladies wear their hair? … The practice of “banging” the front hair and allowing it to struggle over the forehead, is almost universal among the young ladies, and detracts much from their personal beauty. They do not wear their hat down over their eyes, but it is placed on the back of the head, leaving the front hair and the “bangs” exposed in reckless and careless abandon, which seems now to be the ruling fashion. — Chicago Daily Tribune, 24 Aug. 1873.

This reporter has made the same metaphorical leap as Henningsen had nearly half a century earlier, i.e., that blunt-cut hair pulled over the forehead resembles the tails of thoroughbreds, but using quotation marks to signal the novelty of this transferred usage. The Baltimore correspondent is not the first to make the move from horsetail to women's hairstyles, and certainly not the last to do so with disapproval.

Style is a sort of cramping of nature … Why “bang” a horse’s tail? Why “bang” a girl’s hair in front? … O! to get style. — Hawaiian Gazette, 9 Oct. 1872, citing an article by Eli Perkins in the Saratoga (NY) Commercial.

When Perkins made this etymologically obvious comparison, the Saratoga Race Course, one of the oldest in the country, wasn’t yet a decade old. The horses, of course, were thoroughbreds. One could easily conjecture that the resort town of Saratoga Springs was where banged hair and bangs got their names, for where else in America in the 1870s would one have found thoroughbred horses and fashionable young women in the same place in such numbers?

One of the earliest instances of banged, this probably is the only usage where both the hair of women and horses are mentioned together. It not only testifies to the metaphorical leap but may come from the place it first was made.

During the rest of the century, as bangs become a ubiquitous American fashion, women authors give helpful hints on the most flattering way to style them, while a parade of men show their scorn in the usual misogynistic cliches.

The reason why such a leap was taken was a lexical gap: what do you call it when someone cuts hair the same length and allows it to fall? The answer is both economical and equestrian: you bang it. The result for the Baltimore reporter is bangs, a word never applied to horses, but only natural to describe strands of hair cut at the same length, perhaps curled or crimped, and pulled over the forehead.

In a mock fire drill game in a ladies’ seminary in Staunton, Va.:

Mary Losby put up her back hair, fixed her banged front hair, and pinned on a ruff in one minute and three seconds… — Shepherdston Register (WVa.), 1 Nov. 1873.

Two years later, a moralist rails at the vanity of French fashion:

Because Madame de la Mabille dyes her hair yellow and bangs it on her forehead, paints her cheeks, powders her neck…she [the American “fast” girl] goes and does likewise. — Weekly Caucasian (Lafayette Co, Mo.), 20 Mar. 1875.

In Rutherford B. Hayes’ first year in office, a Wisconsin writer contrasts the fashion of some visitors to the White House with the virtuous plainness of the First Lady, Lucy Hayes:

The truth is they feel a little ashamed of their gorgeous attire when they see the "first lady of the land" receiving them in an inexpensive silk, without any jewelry, and hair innocent of puffs, bangs, or frizzes. — Waterton Republican (Wis.), 4 April 1877.

By 1878, three Louisiana newspapers, drawing from a subscription service, printed the same filler:

No prudent man will marry a girl who “bangs” her hair. The woman who bangs her hair will most likely bang her husband.— The Meriodonal (Abbeville), 13 April 1878; Lake Charles Echo (Calcasieu Parish), 28 Sept. 1878; St. Landry Democrat (Opalousas), 12 Oct. 1878.

If smalltown newspapers are printing filler about women banging their hair — the original author apparently ignorant of the sexual connotation since the seventeenth century — then despite the quotation marks, and the all but ubiquitous condemnation of the press, the hairstyle is the fashion of the day.

Singular or Plural Bangs?

  1. Bangs is a natural plural for a style that consists of individual — and countable — strands of hair: if one can see any part of the forehead, then there is more than one bang.

enter image description here

Bang or bangs can also describe men’s hair which by nature or accident falls across the forehead:

He had a bold and keen look, in spite of the bang of yellow hair which hung over his forehead. — Hamlin Garland, Wayside Courtships, 1897.

…a photo of a most villainous looking man with a black bang of hair over his forehead and black bloodshot eyes. — Elsa Lanchester, “Charles Laughton and I,” Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1938, 157.

He has jet-black hair, which keeps falling over his forehead in bangs, tiny black eyes, an olive complexion, and a slight Italian accent. Sidney Kingsley, The Detective Story [play], 1949.

Peter…daubed his downcurling bang of black hair with some pomade, slicking it back. — Robert Penn Warren, Band of Angels, 1955. [COHA]

  1. On the other hand, the style itself could be called a bang. This is how William Dean Howells is using singular bang in 1880, though that usage has since died out, probably because bangs became a feature of numerous styles.

[she] went on papering her “bang” before the glass. She heard Edythe behind her, close upon her — and then she shrieked and tore the curl-papers away…— Arthur's Home Magazine 54 (1886), 44.

To herself and friends she looks “queer” after submitting her bang to his scissors and she doesn't know why; but the secret is that he has never even looked at her face in connection with her bang, which he has cut in the prevailing, but to her, the most unbecoming fashion. Never mind if you do not wear a bang cut in the latest fashion! See that it is suited to your face, and to attain this result, learn what outline is most becoming to you and then cut your bang yourself. — Beauty, Its Attainment and Preservation, 404, 1892.

If one appends “style” to every occurrence of singular “bang,” the reason is clear: it's a headless attributive noun in a compound with “style” omitted, as it usually is in common speech.

enter image description here

  1. If the style, as was common with children, consists of all the front hair pulled forward and banged, it can be considered a single unit, like flour:

Now, Ben and his sister Maggie were usually pretty good friends; that is, he wouldn't allow another boy to tease her very long; he saved that for his own special privilege, and he used to smooth her "bang" the wrong way when he felt particularly affectionate ... The Churchman 45(1882), 27.

She knows, by looking in the glass, that her forehead is distressingly high, and that to fill out the flatness of the back of her head the French twist must be thick and her bang full…When she sees that her forehead is her only nice feature, that it is broad, full, and nobly moulded; that her dull brown hair grows prettily all around, she will not draw down a bang, but half-pompadour back the hair… — The Illustrated American, vol. 4(1890), 499.

The last bang is countable, i.e., a single strand of hair that would detract from the beauty of the forehead.

…and back to the beginning

In 1892, as bangs had long become fashionable among young women, Wallace's Monthly again takes up the issue of bangtails:

The term bang-tail ought really to apply [to] a “broomtail” in which the hair only, and not the dock, is cut square across, as in ladies' frontlets. Of course a horse's tail can't be docked without being banged. Hence docking necessitates banging, and so the phrase bang-tail has been applied to the whole fraternity of curtails. The bang-tails therefore comprehend the blood or broom-tail of the thorough-bred, and the docked, bobbed, stumped cur-tails of the hackney and hunter. — “In Fashion's Guise,“ Wallace's Monthly, May 1892, 211.

Americans had begun using the term imprecisely to refer to any horse whose tail, whether hair only or flesh and bone, had been shortened. By comparing the true bangtail to “ladies’ frontlets,” however, the author gives the history of banged hair and bangs in reverse. It was the verb to bang that first jumped from its equestrian origins into the world of women’s hairstyles because it economically filled a lexical gap. There was no movement from a singular bang to a plural, but rather new derivatives from the verb to describe the style itself, wearing hair in bangs, the banged front hair as a mass noun, and a strand or strands of hair falling across the forehead.

  • You're saying, in this treatise, that the plural noun "bangs" are so-called because they consist of individual and countable hairs. The same can be said of a fringe, and of a head of hair, yet both are singular uncountable nouns. But I suppose it's as good a reason as any other. Any references or authoritative source that supports your explanation? – Mari-Lou A Mar 16 '18 at 11:38
  • Strands of hair. One strand, two strands. – KarlG Mar 16 '18 at 11:41
  • One bang, two bangs, three bangs. A strand is a hair, as in "There's a hair in my soup, waiter." – Mari-Lou A Mar 16 '18 at 11:42
  • It's probably one bang, two bangs, many bangs, though I suppose if one were really really bored, you could count the individual bangs on the woman in the photograph. And I have no idea what to call those wooden things sticking out on top. – KarlG Mar 16 '18 at 11:46
  • Possibly hairclips, haircomb (slide) or hairgrips. – Mari-Lou A Mar 16 '18 at 11:47
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Early uses of "bangs" and "bang"

Based on searching corpora, it appears that the OED, in defining bang in the singular as described in Nigel J's excellent answer, has missed or ignored earlier instances of bangs already referring to human hair.

From 1876 we have an example of "bangs" plural, slightly antedating the Grammarphobia entry citing 1883 for plural form and the OED singular citation from 1878.

Penelope curved her scarlet lips and raised her eye-brows clear into her bangs. Phil was not to be daunted so easily. "A dash of scorn becomes your face, ma belle," he laughed, but with a little suspicion of pique in his fine voice.

This is interesting because it seems to challenge the widespread assertion that the earliest cited source of "bangs" used it in singular form, although it's certainly possible that this could be antedated further with singular uses.

A horse's "bang tail"

Regardless, the OED says "compare to bang-tail" which refers to a horse's tail grown long and cropped horizontally to create a flat "tassel-like" end. This is attested in 1870:

1870 - Daily News 19 July 6 - A good mare with a bang tail.

However, searching newspaper corpora suggests that the term is much older, in common use in Australian newspapers advertising livestock with reasonable frequency as early as the 1840's. The earliest citation I could find is from 1833 in London.

A Thorough-bred BRIGHT BAY GELDING for SALE, only 5 years old, 15 hands 2 inches high, with full main and bang tail.

The earliest appearance in an American newspaper that I found was from 1856:

Marshal Pelissier [presumably French Marshal Aimable Pélissier], who was riding a superb black charger, with a long bang tail, the trappings being of gold and the holsters and saddlecloth of leopard skin, headed the procession

From verb to noun

In speculating on "why" bangs is used in plural today while "fringe" is not, it might be worth looking at the journey the word took. It certainly seems to have originated as a verb, "to bang the hair" meaning to cut the hair flat, as in a horse's "bang tail." Discussions of "banging" hair appear in contexts that don't actually use "bang" or "bangs" as a noun. One such use comes from 1872, with a rather derogatory attitude toward the practice of wearing bangs:

Banging the Hair.

Do you know what "banging" the hair means? If of the gentle sex, of course you do, but in case you may be so unfortunate as to have been born a boy, a word of explanation. "Banging" is a custom of a modern belle, as idiotic as that of the modern beau who parts his hair in the middle. The girl who "bangs" her hair, and the man who parts his in the middle, would be well fitted for each other if the purpose were to increase the number of human nonentitites.

Neither of the two customs originated, as one might suppose, in a lunatic asylum. The "banging" comes from the infant nurseries of England, where the hair of very little children is cut after this style to keep it out of their eyes.

If "bang" was a verb before it was a noun, as strongly appears to be the case, then the adoption of "bang" or "bangs" to refer to the hairstyle was probably a somewhat arbitrary idiomatic development on the part of those who nominalized it. As the OED's entry with all singular uses illustrates, there were some people who referred to "banged" hair as "a bang," while others refer to "banged hair" as "bangs."

In many early cases, the word "bangs" is used in a prepositional phrase, as in:

She had her hair done in bangs

One can imagine how the word could have drifted into all sorts of variations, and eventually settled on the plural noun "bangs."

She had her hair banged

Her hair was in bangs

She brushed her bang

She brushed her bangs

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    Interesting, but why “bangs” became the standard form is still a mystery. :) – user067531 Mar 10 '18 at 8:37
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    The quote from The Daily State Journal is great. – Tom Mar 13 '18 at 11:34
  • @Tom Especially as, although it promises "a word of explanation" it never actually tells you what it looks like (only "is cut after this style to keep it out of their eyes", which could be almost any shape). – TripeHound Mar 13 '18 at 13:52
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The OED makes only three references that I could find, all of them in the singular, showing that the expression as used in conjunction with human hair, was originally singular

1878 F. M. A. Roe Army Lett. (1909) 186 It had a heavy bang of fiery red hair.

1880 W. D. Howells Undiscov. Country viii. 113 His hair cut in front like a young lady's bang.

1936 M. H. Bradley Five-minute Girl ii. 23 The straight dark hair, with its heavy bang across her childish forehead.

The OED ascribes the origin to the U.S. :

Etymology: = hair cut ‘bang’ off; compare bang-tail n.

The front hair cut square across the forehead. (Orig. in U.S.)


The Ngram shows the usage always in the plural, however, so the original usage, referenced in the OED, has not prevailed sufficiently to show in the statistics, therefore the switch to plural must have been early on and very prevalent.

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    Yes, it appears that it was originally singular and later usage moved to the plural form. The question is about how that happened. – user067531 Mar 7 '18 at 16:43
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    @user5768790 I was trying to indicate that its first usage - in regard to human hair - was originally singular but, as you say, has now modified to plural. – Nigel J Mar 7 '18 at 16:45
  • There's a bang on either side of the face, ...? – Will Crawford Mar 8 '18 at 3:14
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    @WillCrawford I don't think that works because it's the fringe across the forehead that, I think, is being referred to.I suspect it is the individual crops of hair ( not individual hairs) that are in view, such as one would see in a horse's tail. The cutting off of each group of hairs is creating 'banged' (cut-off) crops of hair. – Nigel J Mar 8 '18 at 3:34
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Which actually came first?

The plural usage seems to have been in use from very early on; the earliest example I have found is from 1874:

"How do the Vienna ladies wear their hair?" . . . The practice of "banging" the front hair and allowing it to straggle over the forehead is almost universal among the young ladies, and detracts much from their personal beauty. They do not wear the hat down over the eyes, but place it on the back of the head, leaving the front hair and the "bangs" exposed in reckless and careless abandon, which seems now to be the ruling fashion.
Europe viewed through American spectacles by Charles Fulton

In 1880, Ballou's Monthly Magazines had three different mentions of a female's bangs, including a poem entitled "Miss Bangs" and her

beloved and beauteous bangs

By 1891, an American dictionary had this definition:

bang 2 (bang), n. [<bang2, v.] The front hair cut so as to hang evenly over the forehead: often in the plural: as, to wear bangs.
The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language, William Dwight Whitney, Ed., New York, 1891

In contrast, I haven't been able to antedate the OED's 1880 citation for the singular usage1 (separate from "bang tail"). Most of the earliest citations I can find for "bang" related to hair are actually using the verb, not the singular noun, which fits the etymology given by Whitney above (the noun derived from the verb). Some examples:

Is a lady's hair likely to bang when it is powdered?
Saguache Chronicle, August 16, 1879 (Colorado; this is a one-liner joke, pg. 3, bottom of 6th column)

"New Orleans abuses Boston girls for banging their hair. We don't know as it is any worse to bang the hair than not to comb it at all."— Boston Post.
Well, nobody forbids your girls to comb their hair, does he? It seems that a girl—and especially a Boston girl—who could learn to bang her hair could, in time, learn to comb it.
"Courier-Journal Wit", Mariposa Gazette, Number 32, 24 January 1880 (pg. 4, bottom of first column)

The OED's chosen quotations notwithstanding, I suspect that the plural was actually always at least as common as the singular in the US; perhaps the lexicographers were misled by the alleged "bang-tail" origin or by the singularity of the British term into noticing/selecting a misrepresentative sample.

How closely related are human "bangs" to a horse's "bang tail"?

It also seems that the connection between the equine "bang-tail" and the human hairstyle is at best indirect, from the US perspective; the contemporary explanations of the term (the earliest of which only mention the verb, without passing judgment on the appropriate number for the noun) omit any mention of the horses:

Do you know what "banging" the hair means? If of the gentle sex, of course you do, but in case you may be so unfortunate as to have been born a boy, a word of explanation. "Banging" is a custom of a modern belle, as idiotic as that of the modern beau who parts his hair in the middle2. . . . Neither of the two customs originated, as one might suppose, in a lunatic asylum. The "banging" comes from the infant nurseries of England, where the hair of very little children is cut after this style to keep it out of their eyes.
"Banging the Hair", Daily State Journal, 25 November 1872

The present absurd fashion of wearing the front hair "banged" originated in English nurseries, where the hair of very young children is cut in this fashion to keep It out of their eyes.
"Society Small-Talk", Evening star, November 02, 1872 (Washington, D.C.; center column)>

Thus while it may be correct that the term is in some way related to "banging off" hair straight across, it isn't clear that this meaning was in the minds of American women who adopted the fashion. The verb (as used for British children's hair), and the verb used attributively, seem to have predated the noun for humans, apparently without any equine usage influencing usage of the latter.

But why plural?

So why did American women prefer the plural term to the singular for the hair element known to their British sisters as a fringe? Well, why not? Although we typically refer to all of the hairs on a person's head as a singular collective noun, this is not a universal inevitability. Indeed, per the OED this wasn't always true in English:

b. The plural hairs was formerly used = the collective sense 2 [Compare Latin crines, French les cheveux, German die haare.] Now obs. or arch. as in I, which is also often taken not collectively.
"hair, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018. (Paywalled, unfortunately.)

In fact, the plural collective for hair is preserved in terms like tresses, locks, and to some extent curls.

As for why the plural caught on in this particular case, I suspect two factors played a role: the appearance of "bangs" at the time and analogy to other hairdressing terms like those mentioned above.

When we think of bangs today, we may picture something like this:

Photo of woman with straight long hair and heavy bangs/fringe. (Photo by Boblover64, via Wikipedia)

With such heavy, blunt-cut bangs/fringe it may seem sensible to think of the hair across the forehead as a single thing. However, most images of women's hairstyle at the time have quite a different style:

Left: Fashion illustration from 1882 magazine *Arthur's Home Magazine* showing style of bangs/fringe with separated curls. Right: Image of three fashion illustrations from 1892 magazine *The Ladies Home Journal* showing short, curly hair across the forehead.(Images from, on left: Arthur's Home Magazine, March, 1882; on right: The Ladies Home Journal, July, 1892. Note, however, that while Arthur's used "bangs" TLH used the singular term "bang" at that time.)

Portrait of woman from the 1880s showing individual curls across forehead. (Photo made available by Midnight Believer, via Good Free Photos.)

Keep in mind that the verb seems to have predated the noun, and the wispy and curly nature of forehead hair in hairstyles that predominated when the term was being adopted in the US. When we curl hair we end up with locks of curling hair, which are collectively called curls; it seems unsurprising that many speakers would decide that when we bang hair, creating short locks of hair which can wisp or curl over the forehead, that the end product is, collectively, bangs.

It's hard to find written evidence for this kind of thing, but there are a few hints:

After all, what a conglomerate thing the dress of our average woman of fashion is! Let us begin with her hair. The locks brushed down in crimped confusion over her forehead—"banged," she calls it—is an imitation (poor enough) of the low-browed Greek; . . .
"A Representative Toilette", Colorado Springs Gazette, March 1, 1873

This early example of the verb is being applied to a collection of hair that is already conceived of in the plural—the individual "locks" are each curled into "crimped confusion". This association between "curls" and "bangs" is not uncommon in the 1880s:

See the lassies with their bangs—
Curling bangs—
What a world of fortune on each tiny ringlet hangs,
As they frizzle, frizzle, frizzle,
"The Bangs", The Welded Link, and Other Poems, by John Franklin Simmons, 1881

The plural is clearly the sensible choice for this adolescently alluring coiffure, conceived here as being made up of individual "tiny ringlet[s]". Similarly:

The girl's manner indicated beyond a doubt that she was in a terribly excited state of mind. Her "bangs" and "frizzes" had evidently been neglected that day
"Baby's Got the Mumps!", Vennor's Weather Almanac for 1883

Here again, "bangs" are being equated with curls ("frizzes").

Bangs were also occasionally countable:

Her hair was scrambled, caused by taking off her hat without removing the hair-pins, her frizzes were around on her left ear, and one bang was on the back of her neck, while the place where her hair was parted ran across her head from ear to ear.
"Things Pleasant and Otherwise", Ballou's Monthly Magazine, December 1882

And his shiny black hair was parted foppishly in two bangs that descended upon the low and livid forehead.
James Hopper & Frederick Ritchie Bechdolt, 9009, 1908

Three bangs stood out upon the perfect brow of Genevieve Jenkins. Behind the bangs there reveled a gay company of chestnut hair.
Harris Merton Lyon, "Lar Poor Lar", Hampton's Magazine, November 1910

In the modern era, there is some evidence that for some speakers bangs are still a countable plural, at least in some situations:

Helen squinted her eyes and curled a bang of her gold colored hair around her index finger.
Frank Zachery, Double Attraction: A Murder Mystery, 2003

She was very slim in build, and had bangs of very straight silver blonde hair parted in the middle and combed down on each side of her head to her jaw line. Each bang then inexplicably curled in toward her face.
Alden Vaughan, When the Chips are Down, 2009

Madame Gauthier had her hair parted in the middle with rhinestone barrettes on each bang.
Peter Makuck, Allegiance and Betrayal, 2013

TL; DR: It was always plural in the US3, because that's what made sense


1 I've looked primarily in Elephind and Google Books, searching terms like "her bang(s)", "hair in bangs"/"hair in a bang", bang AND hair (within 5 words of one another in Elephind), etc. The early search is somewhat confounded by other uses of bang and its various forms(bang!, Miss Bangs, etc.), and also by some OCR errors (especially for "hang" and "being"), but I don't think I've cherry-picked the plural vs singular examples—the former are simply easier to find, and apparently more numerous, than the latter.
2 Throughout the Victorian era and into the early part of the twentieth century, side- versus center-parting the hair was strongly gendered in the US (center for females, side for males). See, e.g., Winifred Van Etten, quoted in Iowa: The Middle Land.
3 With some regional and individual variation along the way.

  • 1
    My apologies to any other answerers if I've duplicated efforts; I've been working on this off and on for a few days, and haven't had a chance to read all of the updates to answers to check for repeated quotations and such. – 1006a Mar 12 '18 at 20:42
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    You can have a single lock of hair, a few curls, two tresses and two braids, so this answer doesn't explain why "bangs" is plural but not countable. It is, however, wonderfully put together and an enjoyable read. – Mari-Lou A Mar 12 '18 at 21:11
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    @user5768790 have it your way, but "bangs" is always plural, and people keep a single lock of hair as a memento, and you can have one braid, one cowlick, one curl, etc. etc. – Mari-Lou A Mar 12 '18 at 21:22
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    @Mari-LouA It isn't entirely clear to me that in early usage one couldn't speak of a single "bang" meaning a single lock of hair on the forehead, though if folks did it wasn't recorded in print that I can find. I did find discussion of wearing "bangs" on the back of the neck, meaning cutting hair short to create curls at the nape of the neck that would show when hair was in an up-do, so I think the term was a bit more fluid in the early days than now. – 1006a Mar 12 '18 at 21:37
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    Of course once the usage was established, it just stuck (this isn't that unusual; in fashion terms, there's not really a single pant or trouser or glass or spectacle in everyday conversation, either, except in non-wearable senses). – 1006a Mar 12 '18 at 21:37
2

There appears to be no agreed reason, or any authorative source that explains why American speakers favor the plural noun "bangs" over the singular form.

Plural nouns that are not the result of pluralizing a singular, and are normally used in the plural such as: scissors, pants, tweezers, etc. are called plurale tantum.

  • There is another small category of nouns that have no singular form — including scissors, (eye) glasses, pants, shorts, bangs and grits. These words refer to a single item yet both look plural (ending in s) and act plural grammatically.

  • Your pants are on fire.

  • My glasses are in my pocket.
  • Her new bangs look bewitching.

Source: Write at home.com by Brian Wasko

While the BrEng equivalent, fringe, has always been singular, the same cannot be said for bangs nor can they be counted. We do not say “she has three short bangs” “a bang would suit her” or “her bang needs cutting” instead the following are grammatical: “she has three short curls/ringlets/braids/pigtails/locks of hair”, “bangs would suit her” and “her bangs need cutting”. Why can a curl, a lock of hair, a ringlet or a simple braid be countable but not bangs? Has anyone ever counted the number of hairs in bangs? Does “three bangs” sound idiomatic?

American speakers use adjectives and talk about bangs being long and blunt, short and blunt, full, wispy, layered, baby, choppy, and long centered parted bangs: hair which is long enough to be parted in two creating a certain curtain effect.

middle parting bangs (curtain-effect)

Other examples of plural nouns, plurale tantum, that end in "s" and do not obviously come in pairs, include:

alms, belongings, bowels, clothes, faeces (feces), genitals, guts, riches, suds, surroundings, the tropics, jitters, odds and ends, and the heebie-jeebies.

All of which suggests that the plural noun, bangs, is not such a remarkable feature of the English language after all.

  • The use of the plural form with term that are “a pair of” scissors, pants, glasses etc. has its logic, grits refers to a collection of “flakes”, but bangs appears to have no logic collocation. – user067531 Mar 12 '18 at 17:10
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    @user5768790 If you part the fringe/bang in the centre, you have two bangs, a pair... I'm just guessing here. It is, in any case, a plural noun which is rarely (if ever) used in the singular. – Mari-Lou A Mar 12 '18 at 17:12
  • True, but in this case you have, at least, a plural from Old French to refer to. – user067531 Mar 12 '18 at 19:13
  • Well, most of the terms you mention are used in the plural also in other languages, unlike bangs. I can understand there is no answer to it, but the fact that the are other unanswered questions is not an answer. – user067531 Mar 12 '18 at 19:31
  • Can boys have bangs, too, or is this one of those girls-only words? – tchrist Mar 14 '18 at 0:07
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Consider that "bang" means "fringe" and "bangs" means "fringes". Both "fringe" and "fringes" are common:

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  • Not sure what point you want to make with this post. The question is about the AmE usage of plural bangs referring to hair. – user067531 Mar 14 '18 at 5:54
  • Did anyone say that "fringe" cannot be plural? (Fringes became popular for men thanks to the Beatles' haircuts) What does this Ngram tell us about the plurality of bangs (=hair that covers the forehead)? Sorry if this is obvious, but "fringes of the city" has nothing whatsoever do with "hair". In addition, a bang is also a loud noise, it could be the door slamming or the sound of a gun that is shot, we "can hear three bangs", but its meaning is different from "bangs" in the OP's question. – Mari-Lou A Mar 14 '18 at 8:59
  • @Mari-LouA - OP said: "Bangs is the AmE for fringe when we are referring to hair." – Hot Licks Mar 14 '18 at 12:23

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