Meanings “Gang”

September 1, 2011

“Gang” has mostly unsavory overtones, and so I was especially curious about its etymology when my third-grade son came home from his new school talking about being drawn into a gang of boys that did things together at recess.

So here’s the Online Etymology Dictionary on “gang:”

gang (n.) Look up gang at
O.E. gang “a going, journey, way, passage,” and O.N. gangr “a group of men, a set,” both from P.Gmc. *gangaz (cf. O.S., O.Fris., Dan., Du., O.H.G., Ger. gang, O.N. gangr, Goth. gagg “act of going”), from PIE base *ghengh- “to step” (cf. Skt. jangha “shank,” Avestan zanga- “ankle,” Lith. zengiu “I stride”). Thus not considered to be related to go. The sense evolution is probably via meaning “a set of articles that usually are taken together in going” (mid-14c.), especially a set of tools used on the same job. By 1620s this had been extended in nautical speech to mean “a company of workmen,” and by 1630s the word was being used, with disapproving overtones, for “any band of persons traveling together.” Gangway preserves the original sense of the word, as does gangplank. As a verb from 1856. Related: Ganged; ganging. To gang up (on) is first attested 1925. To come on like gangbusters (c.1940) is from U.S. radio drama “Gangbusters” (1937-57) which opened with a cacophony of sirens, screams, shots, and jarring music.

Another four letter Anglo-Saxon word?  It is interesting to see the shift in meaning.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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