We know even less about the origin of idioms than about the origin of individual words. This is natural: words have tangible components: roots, suffixes, consonants, vowels, and so forth, while idioms spring from customs, rites, and general experience. Yet both are apt to travel from land to land and be borrowed. Who was the first to suggest that beating (or flogging) a willing horse is a silly occupation, and who countered it with the idea that beating a dead horse is equally stupid? We will probably never find “the author,” even if we catch the earliest citation in print or dispose of such idioms as so-called familiar quotations (a great wit may have coined one or both of those sayings or used the phrases already current and thus made them famous). Who in the past kicked the bucket and when? Who sowed wild oats, and why just oats? Occasionally I discuss such matters. Raining cats and dogs, pay through the nose, no room to swing a cat, whip the cat, and a few more have turned up in this blog.
While dealing with the numerous phrases containing the word Dutch, I ran into the expression to hang out the broom (what Dutch has to do with this phrase will become clear later). In England, a broom was sometimes hung out of the window to signify a family quarrel. However, one wonders whether the idiom to hang out the broom “to have fun while the master is away; to announce being cuckolded by the wife, etc.” goes back to this custom and even whether it exists in Modern English. At one time, it certainly did (borrowed from Dutch?) but was not widespread. Similar questions have been asked and occasionally answered about many sayings. For instance, in bird hunts, some people’s work is to beat about the bush. The birds fly from the bush, so that the rest of the company can catch them. With time, this practice was understood as a sign of evading the real work and prevarication, the birds were forgotten, and all that is left is the idiom, despite the fact that the time-honored practice has survived.
The same holds for hanging out the broom. For comparison: when we say that we succeeded in cutting the mustard (once mentioned in passing in this blog), we are aware of only the ultimate meaning of the phrase rather than of its origin, as also happens when we use separate words (for example, cut, the, and mustard). Whether to hang out the broom exists as an idiom depends on whether anyone still uses it as such, forgetting about the broom (compare show the white feather, throw the gauntlet, throw in the towel, and the like). Below I will only say what I have read about the practice of hanging out the broom, so that, if the antiquated idiom again comes to life, our readers will have an idea of how it might have originated.
A correspondent to Notes and Queries wrote in June 1850:
“This custom exists in the west of England, but is oftener talked of than practised. It is jocularly understood to indicate that the deserted inmate is in want of a companion, and is ready to receive the visits of his friends. Can it be in any way analogous to the custom of hoisting a broom at the mast-head of a vessel which is to be disposed?”
At the moment I am especially interested in the question asked at the end of the note. Half a year later, the custom was described in more precise terms: it was, we are told, “applicable to all ships and vessels for sale or hire, by the broom (an old one being generally used) being attached to the mast-head.” Those letters were followed by a report, according to which the custom originated from the period of English history when the Dutch admiral Van Tromp (he was actually Tromp, not Van Tromp) appeared with his fleet on the English coast. This takes to 1652 or 1653. The rest is a popular legend whose authenticity is dubious. Tromp allegedly hoisted a broom as indicative of his intention to sweep the ships of England from the sea. In answer to this insolence, the undaunted and eventually victorious English admiral hoisted a horsewhip.
Even if such an exchange occurred under the circumstances described, it does not explain why a broom attached to a mast signifies that the ship is for sale or for hire. According to a rather plausible theory, it had been customary since very old days for servants who looked for employment to wear a hat with a piece of broom on it (broom here means “bramble”; the two words are related). The navy supposedly took over this custom, so that, although the horsewhip is indeed the distinguishing mark of English ships of war and can be traced to the engagement with the Dutch, it fails to account for the practice of announcing that the ship is for sale. In any case, the civil use of the phrase, in at least one situation, may go back to its use at sea (“for sale” or “for hire”). In 1895 an author characterized hanging out the broom as a well-known (!) cant (!) phrase to express the husband’s unwonted enjoyment and hospitality to his friends during his wife’s absence. We note that, although the idiom was understood as low slang (“cant”), it referred to an outwardly innocent pastime (a man is a temporary bachelor and would like to spend some time with his companions while his wife is away). He is not “for hire” (or “sale”) as far as other women are concerned. But the Dutch say zij [she] steekt den bezem uit “she hangs out the broom [besom],” and that means “she wants a new husband.”
Sidney O. Addy, a distinguished folklorist, whose books are interesting to read but whose reconstruction of myths should be taken with a sizable grain of salt, wrote as early as 1895 that, if in the neighborhood of Sheffield (South Yorkshire) a girl strides over a broom handle, she is said to give birth to a child out of wedlock. Addy continued: “Now it is evident that we have here an instance of sympathetic magic, the broom representing the phallus. This being the case, the object of the husband in hanging out a broom in his wife’s absence was to give notice that he could be happy with another whilst his lawful charmer was away.” I won’t discuss how “evident” this conclusion is, but I notice that, according to one version, it is the woman who displays the (phallic?) broom, while according to the other, it is the man. And, returning to the naval metaphor, we observe that a vessel is for hire or sale when an asexual broom is attached to the mast. These pieces of information do not cohere too well; at least they don’t do so at first sight. As in the history of words, facts clash and confuse rather than elucidate the initial hypothesis.
I’ll finish with a short passage, dated 1896, on marital bliss and conjugal felicity:
“I have seen the broom hanging out many times in Derbyshire villages [the East Midlands, England]. But on these occasions the broom was always a besom—pronounced bey-som—the old sort made out of heather, the only rough brush [so not a real broom or a broomstick] known in those days, when I was a boy. To put out the beysom was the climax of a quarrel, and a sign of the utmost contempt on the part of the woman who did it. The beysom never came out except at the end of right royal word combats, and either out of window or reared outside the door was a defiance which sometimes lasted days long. […] I never knew the besom thus used in men’s disputes—only in those carried out by the women folk.”
Well, a ship is also a she, but this is probably beside the point. Other than that, who would say that the study of idioms is a quiet academic pursuit? It looks more like a tempestuous marriage.
Image credits: (1) Sharing their pleasures by Eugenio Zampighi. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp, 1597–1653, after an engraving by Jan Lievensz. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Віник. Photo by teteria sonnna from Obukhiv, Ukraine. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Broom. (c) Antagain via iStock.