Hair, There, Everywhere

I’m part of a casual writing group that meets once a month to share our writings on a particular topic. This month, our writing prompt was “hair.” The first thing that came to mind was the time my mom gave me cornrows. Oh, friends! I was a chubby 11-year-old with braces and no makeup. Meanwhile, Bo Derek was running on the beach with cornrows and was universally understood to be a 10. Let’s compare and contrast, shall we?


My obvious dorkiness aside — dig that monogrammed sweater! — my mom and I had fun during the six hours it took her to weave my hair into all-over braids.

And that wasn’t my only hair adventure. I’ve accidentally turned my hair green-yellow with Sun-In… gotten haircuts that made me cry… chopped it all off… bleached it platinum blonde… dyed it pink (and blue and red), and, of course, black… and once, when I was even younger than the cornrow incident, I suffered a sledding mishap —sled careened into woods, hat flew off, crash into bushes ensued — and I found myself with burrs (like this) stuck in my long hair. Mom spent that afternoon cutting them out of my hair.

Right now, I’m in the middle of a borderline hair crisis. I’ve been too busy to get a haircut — or do what I usually do and take scissors to bangs myself. At first, I just switched from my usual middle part to a side part so I could push my fringe to the side, but now it’s almost too long for that. I haven’t reached the emergency point of clipping them out of my eyes yet, but it’s dangerously close. I’ll make no decisions while under the duress of cookbook production, but this state of in-between hair has got me thinking about bobs and pixie cuts and “aren’t I really too old to have all this long hair anyway?” and how a new haircut, undertaken on a whim, can be a fun adventure. Right now, I’m just in a hairy predicament.

For our writing group, I decided to dig into the hair idioms that we use in everyday language to see how they originated. Here’s what I found…


That’s splitting hairs… to argue over trifles.
It seems to have originated in the seventeenth century. A citation from 1652 in the Oxford English Dictionary, a.k.a., the OED, uses the phrase “cut the hair.” For example, “Machiavel cut the hair when he advised, not absolutely to disavow conscience, but to manage it with such a prudent neglect, as is scarce discernible from a tenderness.” (Chew on that sentence for a while; you’ll get it eventually.)

In the 1986 Dictionary of Cliches, James Rogers pointed out that there was a time when trying to split a hair was so difficult, it was a colossal waste of resources. Now that we can split the atom, splitting a hair is far more accessible, but back in the day, splitting hairs was both pointless and nearly impossible.


By a hair’s breadth… to do something by a very narrow margin.
Until the mid-20th century, the highest resolution of measurement was thought to be about equivalent to the diameter of a human hair, so a hair’s breadth was — and still is — a very small measurement. But, as it turns out, not a very precise one. The diameter of human hair varies from 30 to 100 micrometers. (For reference, 1 millimeter is 1000 micrometers.) Like your measurements more accessible than that?

William Withering, author of the 1818 best seller Arrangement of British Planets, posited that a hair’s breadth was 144th of an inch. He was backed up by the venerable John Lindley in his 1839 page-turner an Introduction to Botany. But another big brain disagreed.

Samuel Maunder, the author of the Treasury of Knowledge and Library of Reference, which was published in 1855 to what I can only assume was much fanfare, had his own POV. Mr. Maunder posited that a hair’s breadth is equal to 1/48th of an inch –and therefore, as you’ve probably already calculated – that makes it about as wide as 1/16th of a barleycorn.

English is not the only language to reference a hair’s breadth. In the Burmese system of Long Measure, a “tshan khyee” is literally a hair’s breadth – their smallest unit of measure – which means a sesame seed is about 10 tshan khee. Two hundred forty tshan khyee is serious business because 240 of them equals an “atheet” which jumps you up to a finger’s breadth.

So, now the question really becomes this: if a hair is 1/16th of a barleycorn and 10 hairs is a sesame seed, how many sesame seeds does it take to equal a barleycorn? Discuss.


Let your hair down… to relax and be at your ease.
This expression may have originated in the days of Louis XIV (1638-1715) when women were expected to wear their hair pinned up in public. In the mid-seventeenth century, men wore wigs of elaborately curled hair, and women’s styles like the fontange were very popular. These piles of hair, feathers, bows, and jewels could climb as high as two feet or more above the fashionable lady’s head.


A more boring version of the story, from the killjoy known as the Oxford Dictionary of Slang, claims that the expression didn’t come into use until 1974. But let’s not confuse the ODS with the venerable OED (Oxford English Dictionary).

According to the OED, an earlier phrase “to dishevel one’s hair” applied to both men and women. For example, this quote from The Mourtray Family by Elizabeth Hervey from 1800: “He had been at court in the morning; but though he had changed his clothes, he had omitted to DISHEVEL his hair.”

It seems that “let your hair down” was the offspring of the original phrase “let one’s back hair down,” which sounds decidedly like one is in need of some serious manscaping. In fact, “back hair” was the common nineteenth century expression for long hair on the back of a woman’s head. Like this charming sentence from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers: “Busily engaged in brushing what ladies call their ‘BACK-HAIR.’” or this, from The United States Democratic Review from 1847: “She become crazy, despises her paternal parent, LETS HER BACK-HAIR DOWN, and runs about in a nightgown. Why do crazy women in operas always let their BACK-HAIR DOWN?”

By 1933, the phrase was sounding more like something you’d want to do. Like this line from Wodehouse in Heavy Weather: “You needn’t be coy, Beach . . . No reporters present. We can TAKE OUR HAIR DOWN and tell each other our right names.”


Hairpin curve… a curve in the road that doubles back on itself.
The hairpin curve, also known as the hairpin turn, bend, or corner, is a road with a bend that requires the driver to make an almost 180-degree turn to stay on track. It takes its name from the shape of a lady’s hairpin, which can be integral in the sexier versions of letting one’s hair down… although, presumably, not one’s back hair unless we’re teleporting back to 1857,  then letting one’s back hair down while traversing a hairpin curve in a carriage could be quite smoldering, indeed.

Anyway. In Europe, one of the most famous roads with hairpin turns is the L’Alpe d’Huez, which is one of the main mountains in the Tour de France.


Its 21 hairpin turns are named after the winners of the stages of the race and by 2001, all of the hairpins had been named, so they started over at the bottom… with Lance Armstrong. And since I’m not a fan of Mr. Armstrong (“Never cheat. Never quit.” ahem), I’ll just quote directly from Wikiepedia:

2001: Lance Armstrong feigned vulnerability earlier in the stage, appearing to be having an off-day. At the bottom of the Alpe d’Huez climb, Armstrong moved to the front of the lead group of riders and then looked back at Jan Ullrich, his main rival for the Yellow Jersey that year, seeming to challenge him to follow Armstrong up the climb. Seeing no response from Ullrich, Armstrong accelerated away from the field to claim the victory, 1:59 ahead of Ullrich. Armstrong would later be stripped of this achievement and his tour win by his conviction for doping in 2012.


Hair of the dog… to take a drink to cure a hangover.
I have to admit that whenever I hear “hair of the dog,” I think of Nazareth. (More cowbell!)

But the phrase “hair of the dog” originally referred to the treatment of rabies. The idea was that the victim of a bite from a suspected rabid dog would place the hair of that dog on the bite wound. In the 1898 tome Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (not to be confused with Benedict Cumberbatch, despite both of them having deliciously British names) wrote, “In Scotland it is a popular belief that a few hairs of the dog that bit you applied to the wound will prevent evil consequences.”

Legend has it that the phrase used as a metaphor for hangover treatment dates back to Shakespeare’s time, with something like: “If this dog do you bite, soon as out of your bed, take a hair of the tail the next day.” But the interent could deliver no reliable citation. Instead, we turn to Aristophanes who said in Latin: similia similibus curantur… that is, “like cures like.”

That superstition holds true around the world. In Hungarian, it translates to “you may cure the dog’s bite with its fur” and it’s summed up in two barely pronouncable words: kutyaharapást szőrével.

In Costa Rica, the dog becomes a pig, but the sentiment remains the same: “pelos de la misma chancha.” In Slavic languages like Polish, Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, the dog becomes a “wedge” or klin – in reference to the notion of dislodging a stuck wedge with another one. And the Russians and their vodka have a phrase “ophmelka”… that advises you to drink after being drunk because the process of drinking now decreases the effects of drinking the night before.

In Germany, they call that “having a counter-beer” or ein Konterbier trinken, and in Austria, they take a kinder, gentler approach with a repair-beer or Reparatur-Seidl.

And the trend continues around the globe with Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, and Czechs all embracing the idea of restoring one’s broken self with an alcoholic antidote. In Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, and Turkey, their “hair of the dog” phrase translates into “a nail dislodges a nail.” But the most accurate might be the Tanzanians whose Swahili phrase “kuzimua” means “assist to wake up after a coma.”

To that I say: Cheers! Nasdarovje! Skoal! and Na zdravi!

How about you? Got any hair-raising hair stories?


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  • heather says:

    hahaha! Love the cornrow story!! And your picture is adorable. My 80’s hair tragedy might just have you beat. I was a chubby 14 year old. My love for Robert Smith was at an all time high. Try to picture this: I had long straight hair. I shaved just the sides over my ears and around the back of my neck, leaving the length of my hair on top..then I dyed each shaved part. Pink on one side and purple on the other. It gets better….I then cut the top of my hair into somthing like a spikey flat top, so i essentially had a mullet at that point wih a punk rock twist. What. in. the. F? And WHERE were my parents??

  • Heather A. says:

    I am the youngest of 5 siblings and always had older sisters doing my hair. The result? Super long hair (I could sit on it!) that I knew how to do absolutely nothing with. Since my childhood I have alternately grown it out (mid back at the longest) and shaved my head. I prefer shaved, but even that becomes too much maintenance for me!

  • Brittanie says:

    As long as your hair is as beautiful and shiny as yours, you’ll never be too old to wear it long. Put the scissors down!
    I love that when Babette asked you if it was purple, you responded “I wish.”
    Who knew there was do much to know about hair?

  • NJ Paleo says:

    Hair woes are not just common to women! My husband started growing a goatee in June, 2012 after wanting to do so for quite a few years and being told repeated by his wife that no way in heck should he do that. So I go on a business trip, and lo and behold, what is on his chin? And you know what? It didn’t look so bad after all. But in August he got into a fight with another family member and shaved it all off, just like that. Not sure why he thought shaving would mend the rift…. Then he decided he missed said goatee and grew it again….and it grew…and it grew…. I gently suggested quite a few times that it might be time to trim it as it was starting to curl under quite a bit. Yesterday he calls me at work and says he trimmed the goatee and was thinking of shaving it off and wanted an opinion. He texted me a photo, and I told him that I liked it. He asked me about 5 times after I got home if I actually liked it or if I just didn’t dislike it as much as the long one (which we started referring to as the Hanrahan after the baseball player who has a tremendously long one).
    My daughter and I NEVER have this much drama over hair. Maybe it’s because my husband has no hair on his head so he’s obsessed with what’s on his chin….

    • Suzi Q says:

      HAHAHA! I’m similar to your husband in that I, too, am obsessed with the hairs on my chin. And I’m a GIRL! Otherwise, we’re kind of opposite… I’ve got shoulder-length, curly hair (think Carol King on the Tapestry album cover)- I haven’t cut it in weeks… But I’m constantly plucking & waxing the &*#%$! chin hairs! 😛

  • Lydia says:

    I’m pretty sure my hair is as long or longer than yours. I’m also pretty sure we’re the same age (about). Therefore, you are NOT too old for long hair.

    • noblepower says:

      I have loads of friends in our age range and older with long hair and they all carry it off so well that I’m growning mine back out.

  • Freya says:

    Oh boy, I’ve been facing the bang dilemma myself for the past 4 months. I had my bestie cut me some bangs when I was in college. They worked for a while but 4/5 years later, I dont’ think I want them anymore. They are such a hassel and I was to try things without them. But they’re still at the annoying, just below the eye phase. They’re ALMOST long enough to tuck behind an ear but just a LITTLE bit more.

  • Cat says:

    I’m pushing 50 and still have long hair, so you can rock it as long as you want. There’s a lady at my church who must be in her 70s and pins up her long hair in the prettiest way. I plan to keep mine long and learn to pin it up like hers!

  • Isla says:

    In the 80’s I had GIANT bangs. The kind you rolled straight up in your curling iron then sprayed aqua net on then “picked” out. And then sprayed more aqua net on. I also shaved the sides of my head so when I pulled my hair up I had these designs there. It’s kind of a bummer that I don’t take any hair risks anymore!

  • April says:

    When we were in Jamaica, I got my hair braided by Mrs. Noria. She was amazing and put this gunky stuff in my hair….. and everyone said I looked like Bo Derek!!!! Beads and all. I loved those braids simply b/c they were convenient. But, today, I just let my hair fly freely and @ the day’s end–it is up in a pony tail….. hair is hair, right?

    I’m too scared of hair risks, plus I like having “virgin” hair–what my hair lady calls my hair because I don’t dye it or do anything crazy.

    Melissa–you have gorgeous hair!!! 🙂

  • If you cut it and don’t like it, you can always grow it back out. I had waist-length hair, cut it to a jaw-length bob for a couple years, and have now grown it down to the middle of my back because I got tired of futzing with it all the time. Once I get my business up and running, I’m gonna start coloring it–turquoise is first on the list! You don’t have to be a teenager to try crazy styles 🙂

  • Girl says:

    Your mom gave you corn rows? Lol wut? And how did they walk around in the 1600s without falling over. I guess they didn’t carry purses. They just put everything they needed in their hair!

  • Libby says:

    I got a free box of Miss Clairol in blue black & snuck over to my friends house and she colored my hair (13yrs) my hair was already dark brown so my parents didn’t notice until several days later when I was sitting in sun black as a raven…teenagers gotta love them. Now I am approaching 54 and been coloring for years, might roots tell me I am getting quite silver 🙂 so lately been fantasing about letting it go grey is a hassle to color but husband & kids seem a bit resistant lol Mel we could be sisters my hair just like yours have always had bangs I think I might settle for a edgy razor cut and keep up the nice & easy darkest brown…

  • Kathryn says:

    I have very thin, fine hair. I have always longed to have a thick mane of long tresses to shake back and forth, to have a big helmet of Texas hair like only the women from that state can pull off, to have a huge afro ala Donna Summer, but only my alter ego is so lucky.

  • Mom says:

    Do you remember when your Dad decided he wanted to grow a ponytail? All he had was that short little stub. It looked more like a cropped dog tail than a ponytail but he thought he was “biker cool”.

  • Jenny Nagel says:

    I was routinely subjected to the Ogilvie Home Perm when I was a kid – terrible. In junior high I convinced my mom that I NEEDED a spiral perm to function in life. Unbeknownst to me, the perm solution chemically burned off a patch of hair on the back of my head. I didn’t notice it until one day I felt what I thought was a giant mystery scab on my scalp. Turns out, it was a lovely patch of stubble growing in. That was my last perm.

  • NMG says:

    Cut that fringe! I did it like this, no problem.
    Also, you’re never, ever too old for long hair.

  • Kelly Spatz says:

    Love the story and that monogrammed sweater takes me way back! My twin sister and I had a bunch of them between us and they featured prominently in school portraits as well. What were we thinking?? About the hair, whatever makes you feel beautiful, keep it! Who cares about social norms and what’s expected of us. You are uniquely you and no one else. Keep up the awesome work.

  • Deanna Fernandez says:

    I’m smack in the middle of my lifelong “long hair struggle” right now. Since growing up (LOL) I have always alternated between long hair with layers to long hair with bangs to growing out bangs and cutting to shoulder length without bangs then growing out and starting all over again. Sometimes you just have to say it and make a change – avoid being bored. I, too, feel sometimes that I’m too old for long hair BUT no one is too old for long hair unless it is witchy and scraggly long then please whoever you are do us all a favor and donate to locks of love and update that style! (although you are not that person MJ) Next cut I’m returning to the one length long bob (just past shoulders)- bangs are at chin length and almost ready- will still have a ponytail and have enough length in the face to not feel like I’ve been scalped. I will feel all sophisticated for awhile then cycle back to my longer rebel locks. My suggestion is to go for a change that leaves you feeling like you still have hair and you will love it then have fun with different looks while it is growing out longer it won’t take long if you don’t go “pink” extreme or with a too layered short…

  • Amber says:

    I think you should write a post on how you keep your hair so lovely and shiny! Either that or I may have to ask you at Paleofx. Genetically blessed or lots of fish oil? Look forward to meeting you! We’re coming “all the way” from snowy Canada.

    • Mel says:

      You are sweet! Thanks for the compliments!

      I think a lot has to do with eating paleo. My nails and hair are pretty strong. But I also use a shit-ton of hair products. I use Bumble & Bumble Styling Lotion and B&B Defrizz (oily, shiny stuff) and I dye it with blue-black dye that makes it shiny, too.