February 16, 2004

Hung like a hero

I remain puzzled about the history of "a(n) hero". Being home sick, I couldn't get to the library, but had a little time for recreational investigation on the internet. It seems that there was a period centered around 1800 when "an hero" was common, as suggested by this histogram of the death dates of the 60-odd authors that lion.chadwyck.com finds for the search string "an hero". By 1900, "a hero" is all that is found; and the pre-1700 citations also seem to be mostly of that form, though there are not many of them.

Interestingly, there are scattered instances of "a hero" through the 18th and early 19th centuries as well, perhaps as common as the "an" version during that period, or even commoner. I've reproduced one of these in its full context below, because I hadn't realized that Jonathan Swift wrote gangsta ballads.

Clever Tom Clinch going to be hanged. Written in the Year 1726.

As clever Tom Clinch, while the Rabble was bawling,
Rode stately through Holbourn, to die in his Calling;
He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack,
And promis'd to pay for it when he'd come back.
His Waistcoat and Stockings, and Breeches were white,
His Cap had a new Cherry Ribbon to ty't.
The Maids to the Doors and the Balconies ran,
And said, lack-a-day! he's a proper young Man.
But, as from the Windows the Ladies he spy'd,
Like a Beau in the Box, he bow'd low on each Side;
And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry,
He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn'd Lye.
The Hangman for Pardon fell down on his Knee;
Tom gave him a Kick in the Guts for his Fee.
Then said, I must speak to the People a little,
But I'll see you all damn'd before I will whittle.
My honest Friend Wild, may he long hold his Place,
He lengthen'd my Life with a whole Year of Grace.
Take Courage, dear Comrades, and be not afraid,
Nor slip this Occasion to follow your Trade.
My Conscience is clear, and my Spirits are calm,
And thus I go off without Pray'r-Book or Psalm.
Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch,
Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.

[According to the OED, whittle (found in line 16) is a variant form of the cant word whiddle "to peach".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 16, 2004 11:04 PM