Panhandler: Its Origins Are Unclear, But Its Meaning Isn’t

Children are experts at uncovering quirks in language use. Most of us, as we get older, become so used to the inconsistencies and the oddball idiomatic expressions that we no longer notice them. Kids, because they haven’t been exposed to as much language, are better at catching seemingly nonsensical turns of phrase, especially in once-common phrases that have faded to only occasional use.

Not long ago I was in a mixed conversation of adults and children when one of the adults used the term “panhandler.” The children had never heard the word before, and we shifted into a brief digression to identify synonyms (“beggar” was put forward, as well as the equally little-known “mendicant“) and speculate on the term’s origin. I knew at least one story, but I didn’t find it satisfying so I decided to dig further.

As with many words with murky origins, there are competing accounts about where this word comes from.

I’ve combed through the sources available to me and here’s what I’ve come up with. As always, be aware that my research is not all-encompassing and my conclusions are not absolutely definitive. This might be the best we can do at this time, but I don’t think we’ve reached bedrock with this word. Like scam (discussed here and here) this might be a word we can’t pin down.

Before diving into panhandler let’s give some mention to the noun panhandle. The term can refer to the literal handle of a pan, but that isn’t the oldest known use in print: OED first documents that use in 1890 (I suspect they were looking strictly at the compound form, not the two separate words “pan handle“). The oldest recorded use, in which panhandle is used in the geographic sense to describe a narrow extension of land from a larger territory, dates to 1846. It describes a particular strip of Virginia — I’ve had trouble confirming exactly which piece, but the context (far from the Carolina line) suggests that it was probably the same strip which became the northern panhandle (or rod) of West Virginia after 1863. There’s a shaky reference from 1838, but it seems to refer to West Virginia as a state (25 years too early), so I’m suspicious.

This kind of panhandle is also technically known as a salient in geography. Outside of the US, that’s the term you’ll most likely encounter.

It’s worth noting here that the earliest uses show it as two words (“Pan handle“) or hyphenated with varying capitalization (Pan-Handle, Pan-handle, pan-handle). It was likely a fairly new coinage at the time, and was following the path taken by many words: from phrase through hyphenated compound to closed compound. Think of a word like email. It mostly skipped the “e mail” phase, but was “e-mail” for a while (and still is for many). Other modern compounds have spent little time in the hyphen stage, or skipped it entirely: cellphone, voicemail, website, touchscreen. Some words, for reasons of pronunciation or other confusion, will keep their hyphens indefinitely: hi-res (not to be confused with “hires”) is a good example.

Panhandle appears to have originated as a reference to part of Virginia, but it became established in print during the 1880s to describe the Texas panhandle (often capitalized, Panhandle). There’s at least one Texas reference back to 1870, but the term was not exclusive to that state: an Indiana legal dispute dating to 1877 involved the Panhandle and Junction railroad, and there’s an Alaska panhandle source from 1896.

Panhandle” has a vague origin but “panhandler” is even shadier. Our friends at OED date panhandler as slang for beggar to 1893, which I recommend we accept because I can’t find anything older, despite several days of trying.

Some etymologies suggest a connection between begging (panhandling) and being from a panhandle territory (a panhandler, in the same way someone from an island is an islander), and claim the word arose during the Great Depression. This isn’t supported: there doesn’t appear to be any text reference to a panhandle resident being called a “panhandler” before the 1930s. The beggar use predates that by forty years. American Heritage and Merriam-Webster offer no useful etymology for either panhandle or panhandler. (Although, curiously, I found an oblique reference suggesting that into the 1990s Webster distinguished a panhandler as “able-bodied“, unlike those other types of more socially acceptable beggars).

Many of the etymologies for panhandler smell like folk etymologies. Some suggest the beggar’s arm looks like the handle of a pan; some suggest it mimics the act of holding a pan. Etymology Online, a site that’s been very helpful in the past, offers weak etymology and no support for the claimed dates (1851 for geography, 1849 for begging).

World Wide Words, another site that often provides great origin info, took a stab at panhandler some time ago. The result was…implausible. I’ll quote it here in full:

It is variously said to come from the habit of beggars of soliciting contributions by thrusting out tin pans, into which generous passers-by would place their coins; or perhaps it’s from the Spanish pan, literally meaning “bread” but which could also mean “money” (much as our word bread can in modern English), or possibly from the idea of some hopeful supplicant panning for gold.

Like a lot of stories, these sound good…if one isn’t thinking too critically. But there isn’t a shred of evidence to connect the word with either gold panning or a foreign word for bread. Both seem to be relatively modern inventions, possibly within the past 20 years, that have gained weight in the repeating. (As usual: if you can locate any evidence to disprove this, please let me know! I can only draw conclusions based on the data I’ve collected.)

One other source has taken a leap at the etymology. Back in 2003 the Word Detective looked into panhandler and suggested it might come from the practice of beggars using pans to increase their odds because “donors are generally thought to be more willing to drop coins into a pan or cup than to touch the beggar’s hand.” I’ve got to admit, I love the image here. But there’s no support for it.

I’m not a fan of the “a stuck out arm looks like a pan” theory, because that sounds like back-fill to me. A stuck out arm doesn’t look like a pan, anyway. And why, out of all the other possible words to use, would someone suggest that an arm looks like a panhandle, an item very few of us would ever encounter separated from its pan?

I’m happy to report, however, that I’ve found one near-contemporary use of the word that includes an explanation for it and gives a glimmer of new insight. This could be just as bogus as any other (etymologies closer to the source aren’t necessarily closer to the truth), but I’m willing to give it more weight.

The Inland and American Printer and Lithographer, Volume 23 from April, 1899, includes this comment in an anecdote describing a tramp (itinerant) printer:

Technically, he was what is called a panhandler; that is, his arm was the handle and his hat was the pan.

This isn’t definitive, but it offers believable clarification of the metaphor behind panhandler: the handle (arm) isn’t sufficient, it’s the pan (hat or other receptacle) at the end that completes the image.

It’s not surprising that the young participants in our conversation didn’t know this word. Ngrams data reveals that panhandle (geographic sense) was lightly used beginning in the 1880s. It was probably a regionalism, growing slowly after 1900 to a peak in 1942 that it didn’t reach again until almost 1970; it then crept upwards, reaching a new plateau from about 1992 to 2003, after which use has dropped.

Panhanlder has seen even less use, slowly increasing from around 1900 to a peak around 1937. It faded, reached a similar frequency again in 1979, then crept to a new peak in 1998, from which it’s been slowly retreating.

Attitudes have changed, as that old Webster’s definition shows. Take a glance at this chart, for example: you can almost pinpoint the moment in the early 1980s when the country awoke to the problem of homelessness (sadly, it seems we’re again becoming comfortable with judgemental language to describe those affected).

We don’t see a lot of panhandlers where I live, but my city has been seriously affected by homelessness, triggered by many factors. In recent years, a large number of our elementary students have been children from other towns whose families live temporarily in state-supported shelters in our city. I don’t want to get deeply political here, but this isn’t a problem to take lightly.

When you encounter a panhandler, or other homeless person asking for help, show a little compassion. As a character in an old murder mystery says, panhandlers aren’t dangerous people out to harm you, they’re just people like you who are down on their luck.

A ‘panhandler’ doesn’t do his work with a knife. He doesn’t try to stab a man to death for the sake of the few dollars…in his pockets.

The word’s origins might be obscure, but that doesn’t give us license to ignore the problem this word describes.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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