star-spangled, spangle

We all know that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner in 1814 after watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

But most of us don’t know what a spangle is, or that Key wasn’t the first to refer to the U. S. flag as star-spangled.

A spangle is a shiny piece of metal used to decorate fabric. The origin is a bit muddied, with a precursor in Old English, but also likely borrowed from Middle Dutch. In Old English, a spang is a clasp or fastener. The word appears in the Old English biblical poem Genesis, line 445, referring to Satan preparing to travel to Earth to tempt Adam:

hæleð-helm on heafod asette    and þone full hearde geband,
spenn mid spangum.

(he put a helmet of concealment on his head and fastened it very firmly with clips and clasps)

By the Middle English period, by the beginning of the fifteenth century, spang had generalized in meaning to refer to a piece of ornamental metal, probably from influence from the Middle Dutch spange. The form spangel appears by c.1420 and the adjective spangled by c.1450.

Star-spangled first appears in a passage attributed to Thomas Dekker and published in Robert Allot’s 1600 England’s Parnassus, an anthology of poetic quotations:

Great Delian Priest, we to adore thy name,
Haue burnt fat thighes of Bulls in hallowed flame,
whose sauour wrapt in smoake and clowdes of tire
To thy starre-spangled Pallace did aspire.

Star-spangled became a rather common adjective referring to the night sky and other heavenly things. Christopher Marlowe, for instance, uses star-spangled towers to translate sideream arcem in Ovid’s Elegies in c.1602.

The adjective was first applied to the American flag in 1806 in the 4 February edition of The Balance, a newspaper in Hudson, NY:

Pale beam’d the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.

Key wrote the first draft of his poem, originally titled The Defence of Fort M’Henry, on the morning of 14 September 1814, the day after the battle. The poem was set to the music of the popular drinking tune To Anacreon in Heaven and published within a week, becoming an instant hit. The song became so popular and well-known that within a few decades English writer Charles Dickens could write in his 1843 novel Martin Chuzzlewit:

I thank you, sir, in the name of the star-spangled banner of the Great United States.

Despite its popularity and the association of star-spangled with all things American, the song did not become the official national anthem until 1931.


Bosworth, Joseph, T. Northcote Toller, and Alistair Campbell. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1898-1972, s. v. spang (n.), spangel (n.).

Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2014, s. v. spang (n.), spangel (n.), spangled (adj.).

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, spang, n.1, spangle, n.1, spangled, adj.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2016, star-spangled, adj.

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