What’s a banger
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Where does the term ‘banger’ come from?
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For amateur lexicographers, there is no greater thrill than happening upon a word you suspect may not yet be in a dictionary.
Pissfart, I thought, would be the one that finally cracked the Australian National Dictionary (AND). It wasn’t in their second edition, and databases I’d looked at only dated it back to 2003.
Slang is always older than you think, though, and the 1978 noun form of pissfart I’d staggered across on Trove was courteously trumped by the AND’s researchers.
So when Gen and Lewis from triple j asked if I knew anything about the etymology of the word “banger” (meaning a great song) I thought, perhaps this could be my chance.
A brief history of bang
The slang terms “banger” and “bang” have been used in English for centuries, and are very productive.
“Banging” someone has variously meant to hit them, to have sex with them, or to do drugs with them.
Your wrong to care about grammar
The ‘rules’ of grammar are made up, so why bother following them?
In Australian English, a “banger” has referred to a sausage since the time of the First World War. Before that in Australia, a banger meant a morning coat, or an unreliable motor vehicle.
All of these are publicly documented by reputable lexicographers.
The musical form of banger, sent thousands of times to the triple j textline as punters frothed on the latest Caribou hit, is not.
But look at any comments section on Like A Version and you’ll see people lauding both a noun (“this song is a banger”) and adjectival (“banger tune”) form of the word. How did we get here?
Here’s a guess: in the 1980s, banger (noun) makes the jump to music, when fans of heavier listening genres start to be called “headbangers”.
Banger (adjective) has some precedence as a general term of excellence, as in “That dress is banging, girl!”, or “Does that tune bang?”
Wonderfully, both the preceding are real-life examples from the Oxford English Dictionary, dated to the early 1990s.
One of history’s first bangers
One of the earliest citations I’ve seen for the noun form of banger — meaning an exemplary song — comes from 2004, in online music forums for the now-defunct Brisbane street mag Time Off.
It’s not the earliest (there’s a Streets song, from 2002, for that) but it is an earlier Australian use than anything the AND has on record.
Buried in page five of a governmentally-archived copy of “Luke’s Hip-Hop Thread”, Luke himself refers to New York-based rapper Big L’s “Size ‘Em Up” as a banger.
One year later, this term is codified, when the following is entered into Urban Dictionary: “If a Song is extremly [sic] tight or just unbelivably [sic] awesome. It is a banger.”
Succinct enough, sure, but it also violates at least three foundational principles of historical lexicography: containing no documented citations (the one it provides is clearly made up), using terms requiring explanation (“tight”), and citing a term (“banger”) within its own definition.
Either way, its use is now firmly ensconced. It’s the title of a UK grime release, and the name of Miley Cyrus album (though in variant plural form, with a z at the end).
Of the world’s daily aggregate output of language, only an infinitesimal amount is ever recorded, much less placed in easily navigable spots for researchers to find.
Owing to this, it’s effectively impossible to point to the first use of a term, or to pinpoint when a slang term crosses over into the mainstream.
But for “banger”, identifying the mainstream crossover point is easy.
A 2014 episode of the US series Parks and Recreation contains a joke where a character, played by Aziz Ansari, explains his “series of rigorous tests”, used in determining whether any given song he hears, is or isn’t a banger. In December of that year, Australian electronic duo Odd Mob remixed Ansari’s monologue.
The resultant novelty dance hit, “Is It A Banger?”, made the Hottest 100 the following year. Hopefully one day, you might see “banger” in a dictionary.
Tiger Webb is researcher with the ABC’s in-house usage body, ABC Language.How a Brisbane street mag and a Parks and Recreation monologue helped bring the world a timely term for a cracker tune. ]]>