Bangs, Piggy Banks, Flies

Dear Matt:

When I was a little girl, my mother always cut my hair in bangs, straight across my forehead. I was looking at some old pictures lately and suddenly wondered why that hairstyle is called bangs. I can’t see that it has much to do with things blowing up.

— Ellen M, via email


Why are children’s little banks always in the shape of pigs? I just bought a piggy bank, and it made me wonder. What does a pig have to do with saving money?

— Anonymous, San Diego


I don’t have flies in my fly, so why is the hole in the front of my pants called a fly? I won’t dress again until you enlighten me.

— G. Andrews, via email

Thanks for the infestation report, G. Careful you’re not arrested for appearing in flagrante nopantso. And while we were at it — approaching the Word Wonk Brigade — we figured we’d round up any others they might deal with. It’s such a crafty, sly bunch and so generally disagreeable, we keep contacts to a minimum. Just slide the questions under their door and stand back until they shoot back their bizarre, vague, and/or useless answers.

Anyway, the scribblings we got back about the word fly are less cryptic than usual. They take the typical wander down definition-change lane, but this time they don’t head off into the shrubbery as often as they have in the past. Seems the word fly is ancient and meant to float or drift about in the breeze. Later, wings were added to things that might fly, as in birds. Then all small airborne insects were called flies. Then it was broadened in the 19th Century to apply to anything (cloth, mainly) attached by one edge and left to whip around in the wind. Flags, f’rinstance. Tailors immediately picked up the term to apply to the flap of cloth modestly buttoned over the hole in the front on men’s pants. The meaning’s stuck.

While they were on the subject, the word nerds asked for a raise, which we’ll carefully consider, then turn down. In fact, we were considering asking them to pay us for the luxury of having an office to go to every day. So, from flies to pigs. Not that big a leap, I guess. The Word Wonk word on piggy banks —or pygg jars or pig dishes, depending on how really, really old you are. The standard answer to this has to do with mud, of a sort. The orangey clay used by British potters to make household plates and containers. The stuff was called pygg. Okay, okay, you’re way ahead of me now. Yes, people would put their spare pennies in a jug or bowl, which was commonly called a pygg jar or pygg bank. Pygg changed to pig around Shakespeare’s time, and the household change-catcher became a pig bank. A British potter is credited with taking the term literally and creating a bank in the shape of a porker in the 19th Century. Piggy banks became popular in the U.S. after 1940, probably from cross-cultural contact during the war.

Asides and diversions: Maybe Britain shouldn’t get all the credit. Centuries-old pig-shaped banks have been found in the South Pacific. Germans made similar banks possibly because a pig stands for good luck and prosperity in that culture. Some too-free-thinkers say banks are shaped like pigs because you can feed pigs kitchen leftovers (like spare change), to fatten them is a good thing, and you have to slaughter them (smash open the bank) to reap the benefit. Not likely. These parallels undoubtedly came after the fact and weren’t part of the first bank-maker’s creative noodling before he had his light-bulb moment and grabbed a handful of pygg. So piggy banks don’t really have anything at all to do with swine.

Someplace here I have pictures of the elves the day Grandma took them to the salon to have their hair cut in bangs. What a sideshow. Grandma figured if they got the hair out of their eyes, they’d be more helpful around the house, because they could see the trash and dirty dishes better. They looked like dozens of copies of Moe. What a hoot. They hid out and wore hats for weeks.

But anyway, bangs the haircut are related to bangs the noise firecrackers and slammed doors make. A tortured historical path, as you might imagine. Kind of like “fly,” “bang” took on a looser and looser meaning as the decades rolled on. It’s a word the Vikings brought to Britain, along with mayhem and bloodshed. It was the sound of a hammer or cudgel hitting wood. The Brits slowly flipped it to a verb as well as a noun, and it came to mean to strike violently and was most short, sharp, loud noises. The obviously handy word was stretched even thinner in the 1700s to accompany any other words that referred to a sudden and very final action. “He cut the horse’s tail bang off.” A popular action, especially in horse shows and racing, ergo, “bang-tails,” horses with short-, blunt-cropped tails. Small leap to the dorky haircut.

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