Hangover

I honestly don’t get it.

Dear Word Detective:  After a long night of drinking, I awoke this morning with a pretty nice hangover.  Surprisingly, my brain was still functioning enough to wonder where and how the word “hangover” was coined.  I would imagine it has to do with being hung over a barrel vomiting or some variation of the sort but I’ve also heard it simply means “unfinished business.”  Could you possibly provide a cure to my hangover conundrum? – Carmen, Utica, NY.

Well, there’s another thing I don’t have to worry about.  I keep a list of such things to cheer myself up.  Don’t laugh.  It’s a real help when I check my bank statement or watch the news to be able to say, “At least I don’t have to worry about being eaten by a polar bear.  Or what I’m going to wear to the Oscars this year.”  If you work hard at it (and I do), you can come up with a list of literally thousands of bullets you’ve dodged.  It makes forking over $700 you don’t have for a car part you’ve never heard of (as I recently did) a teensy bit easier.  Always look on the sunny side, I say, albeit through clenched teeth.

In any case, I don’t worry about hangovers because I’ve been truly, utterly drunk only once in my life, when I was 19, and I decided right then never to do it again.  I do remember that hangover quite vividly, however.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “hangover” as “The unpleasant after-effects of (especially alcoholic) dissipation,” but even I know that doesn’t do the affliction justice.  A full-blown hangover can include severe nausea, a blinding headache, excruciating sensitivity to light and aching pain darn near everywhere.

Your theory about “hangover” referring to the posture of literally “hanging over” a receptacle while feeling the after-effects of one’s excess makes perfect sense, since that posture is almost universally a low point of the recovery process.  But the “unfinished business” explanation you’ve heard is the dull, but true, source of the word.

When “hangover” first appeared in English at the end of the 19th century, it was in the general sense of, as the OED puts it, “A thing or person remaining or left over; a remainder or survival.”  The “hang” in the word is the verb “to hang” in the meaning of “to remain unsettled or unfinished,” as we might say an unanswered question in a press conference is “left hanging.”  “Over” carries the sense of “surplus” or “left after the finish,” as one might have the “leftovers” of Sunday dinner for lunch on Monday.  This “something left over or left undone from an earlier time” sense of “hangover” is is still in use (“The oversized dormitories … are hang-overs from the old lunatic asylums,” 1973).  But the use of “hangover” to mean “aftermath of excess alcohol,” which first appeared in 1904, is now by far the more popular usage.

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