Getting a Handle On It

     So why is the person in the street who asks you for money a “panhandler”?  We were discussing, not so long ago, the difference between a hobo and a bum.  Of course, a beggar is someone else entirely.  A hobo may have an accustomed route for his travels, but a beggar is often to be found at a usual spot, like the lady we used to encounter three blocks from here, who for three or four years could be heard explaining to passersby that she just needed another dollar to be able to afford a bus ticket to take herself and her nine children back home.  We always wanted to suggest to her that if, in all that time, she hadn’t made one dollar, she might consider some other line of work, but we are not such poor sports.

     Anyway, if one is going to be a panhandler, does one need a pan for this?  Apparently, the pan is considered optional by most dictionaries.  The pan is merely figurative: a person with an arm out looking for a handout looked like a pan, which always had that handle out.  The noun came first, apparently just before the Gold Rush days, and the verb followed a generation later.

     Of course, our postcard cartoonists could not let the opportunities offered by the word to get away unnoticed.

     Although in this case, it is not the asker who is handling the pan,.  (And, in fact, this chap is the passerby instead of the person being passed.)

     The postcard makers were divided into the same two classes we have today.  We have those who admired a panhandler who was as shameless as this chap asking for a minor bit of sewing.  (I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the panhandler I was passing with a nod but no donation who shouted after me “I’ll tell your mother!”)

     And there have always been those who hold the mendicant in contempt, feeling the beggar is an able-bodied person who simply doesn’t want to work.  This panhandler is being extra careful about what sort of charity he is being offered.

     Of course, we all have our ways of dealing with panhandlers.  One of my friends would always refuse politely when asked for money on the street, but would frequently mutter “Why doesn’t he get a job?” as he moved on.  (Yes, I am the one who would point out “He does have a job.  That’s it.”)  Those who are interested in telling us what to say carry this to another level, reminding us that neither “beggar” no “panhandler” are complimentary terms, and should not be used, as these people have their own troubles and should not be loaded down with the weight of unpleasant labels.  I don’t know how they would have felt about my use of “mendicant”, which is more properly applied to those members of mendicant religious orders.  I could look it up, I suppose, but there’s no money in that.  Anyhow, our postcard publishers didn’t mind kindness to a panhandler, especially if a pun was made available thereby.

     But they also appreciated those who put the beggar in his place at once.  It does take all kinds.

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