In Reply to: Hangers on posted by Victoria S Dennis on October 13, 2008 at 17:27:
: : The phrase "hangers on". I was lead to beleive that this phrase was used by the more well-off riding inside a stage coach, meaning the less well-heeled hanging on top.
: Not so: the phrase pre-dates the stagecoach by several centuries, being first recorded in 1549. It simply means "a dependant" - note that "dependant" contains exactly the same metaphor, coming as it does from a Latin word meaning "someone/something that hangs" (cf. its relatives "pendant", "pending" and "pendulum"). )VSD)
Yes, hangers-on has a long history, and does mean people or other things that hang on, or are dependent. (The spelling changed in the 16th century, although the old spelling persists. There's an interesting account of this change in the OED. It affected many more words than just this one.)
The word has many associations, some of which are conveyed in particular situations by other words: camp-followers and groupies, for instance, and sometimes coat holders. I associate the word primarily with political hangers-on, people who hang around city hall or the courthouse trying to make themselves useful or indispensable to men with power and position. I think there used to be a phrase something like "people who hold the coat-tails of the rich and famous," or perhaps, who hold onto the coat-tails etc.
The Free Online Dictionary gives us a choice of synonyms that sound right to me (culled from other sources):
"hang·er-on (hngr-n, -ôn)
n. pl. hang·ers-on (hngrz-)
A sycophant; a parasite.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
pl hangers-on an unwanted follower, esp. of a rich or famous person
Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006 © HarperCollins Publishers 2004, 2006 ...
Noun 1. hanger-on - someone who persistently (and annoyingly) follows along
follower - a person who accepts the leadership of another
Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2008 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.
noun parasite, follower, cohort chiefly U.S. leech, dependant, minion, lackey, sycophant, freeloader (slang) sponger (informal) ligger (slang) quandong Austral. (slang)" See:
Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary gives a more sedate and concise definition of hanger-on:
"one that hangs around a person, place, or institution especially for personal gain." See:
In my experience (USA) hangers-on were usually thought of as annoying people hanging around places full of politicians and appointees, or the haunts of the rich and famous. The idea of the cheap seats on the stage-coach being those of men hanging on to the outside roof of the coach by their fingernails is certainly an engaging one. I'd like to know whence that idea sprang.