[Ads-l] "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 12 19:55:55 EST 2018

On Sun, Nov 11, 2018 at 9:29 PM Ann Burlingham <ann at burlinghambooks.com>
Google Ngrams tells me that "to a public hanging" has been used in a tiny
fraction of books from 1800-2018, so I'm curious whether any on this list
know if "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row" or
some version of it is a common phrase, sentiment, or saying, as the
Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith seems to imply:


A newly published video shows a white Republican U.S. senator in
Mississippi praising someone by saying: "If he invited me to a public
hanging, I'd be on the front row."

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who faces a black Democratic challenger in a Nov. 27
runoff, said Sunday that her Nov. 2 remark was "exaggerated expression of
regard" for someone who invited her to speak and "any attempt to turn this
into a negative connotation is ridiculous."

See the New York Times article:

Paul Reed, a University of Alabama professor who specializes in the
sociolinguistic history of Southern and Appalachian English varieties, said
that the phrase first appeared in written works in the United States in the
mid-1800s and that its usage peaked during the civil rights era in the 20th
He said that the phrase had indeed once been used as an expression of
regard. People would use the idiom to convey that they thought so highly of
someone they would attend something as distasteful as a public hanging with
But given its clear negative connotation, Mr. Reed said, most people would
not dare to use the phrase in 2018.
"It has fallen so far out of favor," Mr. Reed said in an interview. "I
cannot believe that someone would use that today."

I asked Paul on Facebook for more info, and he said: "I did a quick ngram
search, and there weren’t any hits for 'invite to a public hanging'.
However, for 'public hanging' the first appearances were in the 1840s, with
a few more through the rest of the 19th century. The frequency of 'public
hanging' really increases from 1920 on... I heard the phrase a couple times
as a young kid, but nothing since I was about 10."

I'm having trouble finding any historical examples of this "saying," but
perhaps I'm looking for the wrong phrasing.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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