From Delilah to Donald Trump: Hair has long been tangled up in sex and power – Susie Dent

Intimate grooming may have led to the development of language itself and English is full of words associated with hair, from comet to capricious and horrible, writes Susie Dent.

Donald Trump on, arguably, one of his better hair days (Picture: pool/Getty Images)
Donald Trump on, arguably, one of his better hair days (Picture: pool/Getty Images)

“Hair matters. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.” A lesson from Hillary Clinton, who had good reason to forearm herself against an obsessive scrutiny of her locks during her presidential campaign, even more than those of her rival Donald Trump, whose own rug was once described by the Guardian as “a bin lid made of barbershop sweepings”.

This week, Piers Morgan provoked innumerable Ofcom complaints after he compared Boris Johnson to the eponymous scarecrow in the children’s TV series Worzel Gummidge, on account of the Prime Minister’s increasingly lunatic fringe. He had a point, but, as all but the luckiest know, lockdown hair is a let-down whichever way you look at it.

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The arrangement of our tresses has held military, sexual (think Samson and Delilah), and tribal associations for centuries. Some believe that the act of hair-cutting is intimately linked with the development of language, both physical and verbal. The former is part of the cycle of human touch on which we depend, the same socialisation process that we can still observe in primates who meticulously remove ticks and parasites from each other’s fur.

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As for the verbal side of things, look no further than the chatter that usually accompanies any trip to a hair salon – inane or not (some may side with the Macedonian king Archelaus who, when asked by his barber how he would like his hair to be cut, apparently replied “in silence”). Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, a 19th-century compendium that is the most joyfully esoteric of all reference books, offers some fairly random but enlightening facts on the history of hair.

It includes, for example, the nugget that, in times of calamity, hair in ancient Rome and Greece would be shaved and dedicated to the gods in supplication for better times. It’s a strategy many of us might like to try at the moment, although the gods might be a little overwhelmed by the river of split ends flowing their way. Nonetheless, the significance of hair in our history is wrapped up in much of our language. Take the word “address”, one of the earliest meanings of which was to dress or array one’s hair as part of elaborate courtly ritual.

‘A kind of Toilet on their Heads’

A “comet”, from the Greek kometes, is a “long-haired star”, while a “cirrus” cloud comes from the Latin for a tendril or curl. Some of the earliest “toilets” were ornate coverings for the hair; the word migrated to the place where, originally, such headdresses might be adjusted, leading to such comical 17th-century statements as “the ordinary citizens Wives and Daughters wear a kind of Toilet on their Heads, with a long Fringe which covers their Faces, and drives away the Flies like Horse-trappings”. Some of us may be sporting similar toilets now. A few years back there was considerable excitement at the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary when its team dated the phrase “bad hair day” to at least the 1980s.

The expression illustrates the extent to which our hopes and self-worth are so tied up with our tresses that a bad hair day means not only one when our mane is particularly unmanageable, but one on which absolutely everything seems to go wrong. As the dictionary defines it, a bad hair day is “a period (not necessarily a day) in which one feels unusually agitated, dissatisfied, or self-conscious”. Those parentheses seem quite prescient now. In language, few hair stories are good ones.

The words “horrible” and “horror” are descendants of the Romans’ horrere, a verb used of hair standing on end at the sight of something dreadful – the technical term for such bristling is “horripilation”. Such feelings still ripple through any “hairy” experience: one that raises the hair on our skin as much as the engines of Air Force One manage to elevate the US President’s combover whenever he approaches. If his enemies call him (and his barnet) capricious, they are unwittingly referring once more to hair standing on end – the roots of the word are in the Italian capo riccio, “hedgehog head”. Shakespeare liked to talk of “elflocks” – a tangled mass of hair thought to be the agency of elves, a sight familiar to anyone with meetings on Zoom.

Touch of a hairdresser’s hand

To distract ourselves while we wait for hairdressers, many of us have taken to a hair of the dog. This idiom, a shortened version of “a hair of the dog that bit you”, is more than a little extreme. It is rooted in a medieval remedy that instructed anyone bitten by a stray dog to find the offending animal and pluck out one of its hairs; a poultice containing the hair was believed to cure the wound. Later, the idea of quaffing a small tot of alcohol to mitigate a hangover was thought to follow a similar model. Of course, there are many who have remained unbothered by any rug rage in recent weeks.

Those without hair, whether willingly or unwillingly, have literally outshone the rest of us. It’s about time: history has not been kind to the bald – at least not in Western culture. One epithet from the 16th century was “pilgarlic”, likening those with a smooth pate to a bulb of “peeled garlic”, interpreted as a sure sign of venereal disease.

Go back to the Vikings and you might find lotions of goose poo designed to restore hair growth, while the Egyptians believed that blending the spikes of a hedgehog (again) with oil and a few fingernail scrapings might relieve the affliction. Potus [President Of The United States] might take pride in the fact that Julius Caesar seems to have been one of the first to sweep what hair was left to him over a growing expanse of scalp. This is apparently known euphemistically as “illusion styling”.

For the rest of us, the queues outside barbers and salons when the time comes will be proof enough of our reliance upon those who have variously gone by the name of friseurs, suds-mongers, Figaros, tonsorialists, Sweeneys, and scissorsmiths. No one could claim that a soignée hair-style counts for anything given the world as it is, but we’ll be returning for more than a cut or a paste: we need a glimpse of the old normal, too. In the darkest of years, the touch of a hairdresser’s hand might give us at least one highlight to take home.

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in “Dictionary Corner” on Countdown since 1992

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