George Stimpson

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How did the goose hangs high originate?

The goose hangs high is an American proverbial saying of obscure origin. It means "the prospects are good" or "all's well." Most etymologists are inclined to regard it as a corruption of "the goose honks high." It is said that the original expression was "Everything is lovely and the goose honks high." The underlying thought of this [page 88] theory is that wild geese fly higher in pleasant weather than they do in cloudy or stormy weather and then make the characteristic cry known as honking. Hence when the wild geese honk high it is a pro­pitious omen, a sign of fair weather and good sport. But there is no evidence that honks preceded hangs in the expression, and the con­ventional explanation is pure conjecture. The saying may have orig­inated in connection with the tournaments held in many parts of the South since Colonial times. In these tournaments rings are suspended some distance apart and gallant knights armed with long lances and mounted on gaily caparisoned horses are rivals in trying to center the largest number of rings while riding at full speed. The knight who centers the most rings usually receives a prize and is permitted to choose the prettiest girl for the dance that follows. In some sections such tournaments used to end with a "gander pulling," in which a tough old gander whose neck had been picked clean and greased was suspended at a considerable height. Each knight would attempt to pull the gander down while riding at full speed. Often a knight was pulled from his horse. The signal for the knights to charge was, "The goose hangs high!" Of Abraham Lincoln at Salem, Carl Sandburg wrote: "There, too, were the gander pullings. An old tough gander was swung head down from the limb of a tree, with his neck greased slippery. Riders, who paid ten cents for the chance, rode full speed, and the one who grabbed the gander's neck and pulled the head off, got the bird." In As You Like It Shakespeare associated goose with tournaments, but in a different sense, when he had Celia compare Orlando to "a puisny tilter, that spurs his horse but on one side, breaks his staff like a noble goose."