Last week I saw a nicely tanned fellow, walking on a raised median along a row of cars stopped at a street light and holding a cardboard sign. He was peering into each windshield, extorting a donation, waiting for a window to slide down and reveal a fluttering dollar bill. The guy was younger than me, so he was preteen when Nixon ended the war in 1973. But his sign said “Help Vietnam Veteran buy a bus ticket home.”
Several opinions exist regarding the origin of the term ‘panhandling.’ Most likely it refers to a beggar holding out a kitchen pan for small coins, an image from another century. Some allege that a hand and an arm, extended for begging, resemble a protruding body of land, also called ‘panhandle.’
Books about the Great Depression describe unemployed people holding out a hand in the street for a few cents, money for a meal. Does ‘panhandling’ sound somehow romantic, is that why the term still exists? There are no pans to be seen anywhere. People’s sensibilities have changed and we now respond to slogans and to ideas they evoke rather than the sight of an open hand.