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Green's Dictionary of Slang gives this definition of "hang," referring to turning left or right in a car, with a citation from 1966.

(orig. US) to turn a corner in a motorcar; as in hang a left, hang a right.

There are many earlier uses of the phrase "hang a left" and "hang a right," but they appear to mostly refer to throwing a punch with the left or right arm respectively, especially in boxing, but sometimes applying outside of sport.

In these cases, it is often described as a left or right "hook," or "jab," as in hang a left hook or hang a left jab.

I haven't found this sense defined in either the OED or in GDoS, but citations are not hard to find.

Berg hangs a left jab on Tony's ear in the seventh

enter image description here

-1931 - Daily News (New York, NY) 11 Sep (paywall)

Sometimes, this sense is also used without a following object like "hook" or "jab," as with "hanging a left" in your car, a boxer can "hang a left" on their opponent and the meaning is clear.

Richard Li Brandi... hangs a left on jaw of Lawrence Greene

enter image description here

Based on my research, it appears that throw a left hook is the most common term in boxing for referring to a punch, with hang perhaps being more colloquial.

Question:

  • What sense of the word "hang" is being used in boxing when it refers to a punch? Is it slang that developed exclusively in boxing, or does this notion of "hanging" meaning throwing a punch go back further, or exist in other domains?

  • Did this "hang a [direction]" pattern have any influence on the more recent slang for turning right or left in a car, or are the two senses of the word "hang" in any way related?

  • Re driving, I had always assumed that the "hang" as in reference to figuratively reaching out and grabbing a tree or some such, to force a "swing" in the intended direction. One might literally do this when, eg, running through a forest. – Hot Licks Nov 15 at 19:52
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  • Ngram finds this from 1907 for "hung a left" in the boxing sense. – Hot Licks Nov 15 at 21:58
  • There apparently was a song "Hung a Left" by Domenic Mercurio in 1968. – Hot Licks Nov 15 at 22:03
  • This bit by William Safire suggests that "hang a left" refers to a skier making a turn: "Hang a draw," or "Hang a forty-four," which meant "One large root beer, please," has reappeared in the surfers' "hang ten" (to grip the edge of a surfboard with all ten toes) and the skiers' "hang a left" (to make a left turn). Soda-fountain ... – Hot Licks Nov 15 at 22:07
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So far, the turning hang has plausible explanations without resorting to boxing jargon, though so far this is a partial answer.

Here is the directional use for hang, v., as reported in the Oxford English Dictionary, and first attested in 1967:

colloquial (originally and chiefly U.S.). to hang a left, to hang a right, etc. (also jocular with proper names having the appropriate initial letter, as Louie, Ralph, etc.): to go or turn in the specified direction, esp. while travelling in a motor vehicle or on skis. Cf. sense 11d below.

1967 Evening Standard 26 July 13/3 If you're in your pig [sc. car, in Detroit] and you ‘hang a Louie’, you've just turned left. If you ‘hang a Ralph’, it's a right turn, ‘hang a Sam’ is go straight and ‘hang a Ulysses’ means make a U-turn.

1975 L. Dills CB Slanguage Dict. 39 Hang a right (left), turn right or left.

Sense 11d refers to a horse veering to one side:

d. Of a horse: to veer towards one side.

1951 E. Rickman Come Racing with Me ii. 16 Sarda II ‘hanging’ towards Native Heath..who won by a short head.

And this, in turn, is grouped with hang as leaning or hanging to one side (forward, backward, or to the side):

a. To have the top bending or projecting beyond the lower part; to bend forward or downward; to lean over; (also) to incline steeply (see hanging adj. 2).

OE Beowulf 1363 Se mere..ofer þæm hongiað hrinde bearwas.

[over it hangs frost-covered groves, source for translation]

So, one explanation would be that hang a left or hang a right would relate to the leaning action a horserider, skier, or other mover might do as they turn. This seems plausible. For a vehicle with an axle, it's as dead a metaphor as turning on a smartphone.


Meanwhile, the meaning of a punch may come from this meaning (under "to hang on"):

  1. to hang one on: to deal (someone) a blow.

1908 K. McGaffey Sorrows of Show Girl 200 Hauling off wifey hangs one on Alla's map.

1960 B. Crump Good Keen Man 44 I'd thought for a moment he was going to hang one on me. The idea..had got his goat all right.

Note, however, that the OED is limited on this point, and does not reflect the usages like hang a left jab you found. So my next steps will be to try to find a connection between hang as a blow and hang as a turn that isn't reflected in the OED.

  • I'm sure I commonly heard "hang a right" some years prior to 1967. – Hot Licks Nov 15 at 20:25
  • I hadn't been familiar with the "to hang one on" phrase. That's an interesting finding. – RaceYouAnytime Nov 15 at 20:35
  • @HotLicks - this is from 1965 but there must be earlier usages. “But the pickup is all right and we cruise down Oak and then hang a right onto Chestnut and then Miss Priscilla's house comes up all ashy in front of us.“ books.google.it/… – user067531 Nov 15 at 20:50
  • @HotLicks I'm sure you're right. My plan once my son goes to bed is to find prior uses of hang a right. – TaliesinMerlin Nov 15 at 21:19
  • A surfer will "hang ten" by stepping to the front of the board and curl 10 toes over the front edge of the board. – John Canon Nov 16 at 3:33

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