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Friday, September 4, 2015

Sling, slang, slung

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how we form the simple past tense of verbs ending in -ing and -ink in English.

While most people say

ring, rang, rung


sing, sang, sung

they also say

swing, swung, swung


sling, slung, slung.

But on two occasions recently I have come across different conjugations of "swing" and "sling".  The first was during my Mad Men binge-watch (which also got me thinking about "massacree"), when one of the characters said, "I swang past the office." Your reaction might be "Sounds hillbilly!" but this character's language was not otherwise marked as being non-standard.
I swang a lot when I was a kid
Then in church, I was jolted out of my doze, I mean, caused to pay even more attention than usual, by this account of the David and Goliath story: "David put his hand in his bag, and took out a stone, and slang it."
contemplating conjugation

As with "sink" and "drink", the story is complicated.

Going back as far as Anglo-Saxon times, the pattern for the simple past of "swing" was the following:
I, thou, he, she, it "swang" 
We, you (pl.), they "swungon" 

After the Normans arrived, confusion reigned, with "swang" starting to be used for both singular and plural subjects, but with competition from the newfangled "swong" and even "swinged". "Swung" didn't even turn up as a past tense until the 1700s, but by the 1800s this interloper was pretty much established as the standard past, at least in Britain.

Wordsworth was still using "swang", and since there is no evidence of "swung" in his poems, "swang" was perhaps normal for him.
1835   Wordsworth Stanzas Power of Sound x, in Yarrow Revisited 318   While Fauns and Satyrs beat the ground In cadence,—and Silenus swang This way and that, with wild-flowers crowned.
Thirty years later, Tennyson also used it, but I suspect in his case it was for poetic effect.
1864   Tennyson Aylmer's Field in Enoch Arden, etc. 52   Sir Aylmer Aylmer.., Whose blazing wyvern weathercock'd the spire,..And swang besides on many a windy sign.

In the US, where, as we have seen before, older forms often survive, "swang" is still to be found, though quite rarely. Wordsworth notwithstanding, I wouldn't recommend using it in formal English (Blogger, for instance, is reproving me with its red squiggly line every time I type it).

"Swing" has meant "move back and forth" for less than half of its long life. It started out meaning "whip, flog, beat (a person); also, to strike with a weapon or the hand", and it is only because this action usually involved a back-and-forth motion that the verb came to have its now most common sense, starting in the 1500s.

"Sling", though not as old as "swing", followed essentially the same pattern: the past tense being "slang", "slong", or "slung" from the 1300s to the 1600s, with "slung" winning out decisively.  But not before the translators of the King James Bible had immortalized "slang" in the story of David. As for the common sense of "slang", we do not know where it came from.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.