It was a dark and stormy anecdote….
Dear Word Detective: You often use “thereby hangs a tale” in your columns. It’s almost as though you are hinting for someone to ask about this phrase. I’m asking. I lost a neat book by that title by Charles Earle Funk. I recall the explanation involved Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Can you add more background? — Charlie N.
I know no one is likely to believe this, but I really haven’t been seeding my prose with bait to elicit reader questions. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, and the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. The downside is that I’d have to pick “bait” words and phrases that would both fit logically into the “lure” column and be practical to tackle in the “follow-up” column, lest I be hoist on my own petard and caught between a rock and a hard place. With bells on. To boot. Forsooth.
Somewhere around here (probably in the pile of books in the corner that is being used as a nest by a cat I swear I’ve never seen before) I have a copy of the book you lost, Thereby Hangs a Tale by Charles Earle Funk. I’m pretty sure the book is out of print, although it’s available on Amazon (at inflated prices, of course). A few years ago, however, I found a very thick tome titled “2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings and Expressions” on a remainder table at Barnes & Noble. It turned out to be four of Funk’s works of popular etymology (A Hog on Ice, Thereby Hangs a Tale, Heavens to Betsy!, and Horsefeathers) in one volume, and you can order it new from Amazon for $13.99. Operators are presumably standing by.
It’s fitting that Funk titled his book of word and phrase origins “Thereby Hangs a Tale” because the man was a masterful story-teller, and while some of his explanations have been superseded by recent research (“Tale” was published in 1950), I wouldn’t hesitate to give the book as a gift.
“Thereby hangs a tale” means, roughly, “there’s an interesting story about that” or “there’s more to this matter than you know” (“Yes, Dwayne went to the dance with Heather, not Mary, and thereby hangs a tale”). Shakespeare used the phrase in at least three of his plays (Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Taming of the Shrew), but he apparently didn’t actually coin it, as it has been found in print at least twenty years earlier.
You can’t blame Shakespeare for appropriating a good line, however, and “thereby hangs a tale” is a great line. Its kick lies in it being a fairly subtle pun on the homophones “tale” and “tail” as well as invoking two senses of the verb “to hang.” The tail of a horse, for instance, literally “hangs,” is loosely suspended, from the stern of the animal. But a figurative sense of “to hang,” in use since Old English, has meant “to depend upon, especially for support or authority” (as in “Bob’s defense hangs on his brother’s testimony”). So “thereby hangs a tale” invokes the image of a “tale” which “hangs,” is directly connected to and often an explanation of, the point just mentioned.
“Hang” used in this sense is strikingly similar to our familiar verb “to depend,” which originally meant literally “to hang from; to be suspended,” but which we now use to mean “to rely upon or be a consequence of” something. That archaic literal “hang from” meaning is now rarely seen, but the great humorist S.J. Perelman put that sense to good punning use in one of my favorite Perelman lines. Writing of narrowly dodging a sticky social embarrassment through pure chance, Perelman noted that “On such gossamer threads does our fate depend.”