Q From Andrew Purkiss: I had always assumed that we had to use the German word Schadenfreude because there was no English equivalent. I recently came across the phrase crepe hanger, in a question to the Q&A column in the Daily Mail, which claimed that it meant Schadenfreude. Have you come across it? If so, what on earth is its origin?
A The questioner has got his semantic knickers in a twist. The phrase certainly exists, though it’s hardly an everyday one. (It’s somewhat better known in the US, where it originated.) But it has nothing in common with Schadenfreude, which means pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.
A crêpe hanger is the ultimate pessimist:
”You Irish are in love with your sorrows. You are too damned depressing.” “I am not in love with my sorrows!” “You’re a fucking crepe hanger.” “What is a crepe hanger?” “You see the world draped in black. Nobody’s sorrows are worse than yours. You hang black crepe on everything.”
The Immune Spirit, by Susan Ryan Jordan, 2001.
My reference books variously say it’s from the 1940s or the 1920s. The earliest I’ve so far found is dated 1909 (from The Silver Horde by Rex Beach). It seems to have become common shortly after that date. A notable early appearance is in a Mutt & Jeff cartoon of 30 October 1915, in which Mutt is being pessimistic about Jeff’s chances of survival during an action in World War One; the title to the strip is “Mutt certainly is old ‘crapehanger’ himself”.
As these examples show, it has often been spelled crape hanger or crapehanger, especially in older usage, to reflect the way the word for the crinkled fabric was for centuries spelled in English. (In more recent times, we have returned it almost to its original French form by changing the a back to an e; in the UK we also frequently include the accent.)
It’s forgivable that moderns who encounter it are puzzled. Undertakers’ assistants have long ago ceased to be literal crêpe hangers, engaged to drape black crêpe across the windows and mirrors of a house in which a person has died. Neighbours these days no longer follow the old custom of similarly hanging crêpe in their windows as a mark of sympathy and respect. Nor is the customary clothing of a grieving female relative now characterised by crêpe:
As for periods of mourning, we are told that a widow’s mourning should last eighteen months, although in England it is somewhat lightened in twelve. For the first six months the dress should be of crape cloth, or Henrietta cloth covered entirely with crape, collar and cuffs of white crape, a crape bonnet with a long crape veil, and a widow’s cap of white crape if preferred.
Harper’s Bazar: 17 Apr. 1886.
It’s intriguing that the rise in popularity of the idiom roughly coincided with the date at which the extremes of mourning of the nineteenth century were going out of fashion. Perhaps before then it would have been regarded as inappropriate or even offensive.
Strictly, the term ought to mean “mourning”, not “pessimism”. It might be that the meaning came about through the conventional downcast face and lugubrious expression adopted by undertakers, which made them look as though they were expecting the worst rather than officiating at rituals to mark its already having happened. More probably, it started life in the sense “kill-joy”, which in one way undertakers, mourning and funerals certainly are, and moved on from there.
An untypical example from more recent times:
Pop Crapehangers Hex But R. & B. in ’56 Boom
A headline from the issue of Billboard for 16 Feb. 1956. This may be translated as “The doom-and-gloom merchants of the pop establishment cast a curse on rhythm & blues music, but in spite of that, it’s thriving.” Thanks to Marv Goldberg for the quote and the translation.
One usage that survives in US medical jargon is the verb to hang crepe. This is the ethically dubious practice of painting the bleakest possible picture of a patient’s condition to his or her family. This prepares the relatives for the worst possible outcome but also usefully makes the doctor seem a hero if things turn out better than expected.