Stupid Question ™
Jan. 4, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: Why is the short front part of a person’s hair called “bangs”?
A: I trust you won’t take it personally when I tell you it has to do with a horse’s rear end.
“Bangs,” meaning a style in which the hair is cut short and straight across the forehead, originated as US slang of the late 19th century.
It undoubtedly was derived from the term “bangtail,” which described a horse’s (or sometimes other animal’s) tail that had been trimmed straight across.
This, of course, leaves us with the question of where “bangtail” came from. The answer can be found in the more familiar meanings of the word “bang.”
Like most of the truly great four-letter words, “bang” has an uncertain origin. It probably was invented as an attempt to imitate a loud, sharp sound.
It’s possibly of Scandinavian origin; Old Norse had a word bang, meaning “hammering.” But the Germans had bangen (“to beat”), and it’s hard to say who influenced whom.
The real problem is that “bang” doesn’t show up in written English until the 1500s, long after Norsemen or Germans would’ve had a big impact on the language. Some lexicographers think the Vikings—who knew a thing or two about banging on stuff—brought the word to England, where it lay hidden in Northern English dialects for centuries.
“Bang” originally meant “to hit heavily and loudly” (or in its noun form, a heavy and loud blow). Its meaning has continually broadened in the intervening 500 years.
By the late 1700s, “bang” had general connotations of abruptness or suddenness. By the early 1800s, it had the colloquial meaning of “completely” or “exactly,” generating such phrases as “bang on” (“right on,” “exactly”) and “bang off” (“immediately”).
The “abrupt” and “sudden” meaning is the one that interests us. “Bangtail” literally means an “abrupt tail,” one cut straight off without any fancy styling.
And that’s what “bangs” means, too. In fact, when the word was first popularized, it was commonly used as a verb: You got your hair “banged,” or cut straight off.
Similarly, the word was originally more common in the singular form “bang,” which more clearly refers to the entire fringe of hair. The plural form “bangs” seems to be a relatively recent colloquialism.