When we woke up this morning and looked out the window, we saw this: Smudge had this reaction. (If I'm being honest, that's pretty much...Read More
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!