The Story Behind Words for Hair Color

The conventions for referring to hair color are tousled. Why is it that we refer to someone with light-colored hair as a blonde (and, rarely, a blond) but we call someone with red hair a redhead? Why are blonde and brunette spelled two ways?

Blond and its feminine form blonde, both from the Latin word blundus (“yellow”) by way of French, may have in turn come from a Frankish word that could be related to Old English blondan, “to mix,” which shares its origins with blend. Blond is usually employed as an adjective, the term as a noun for a man with blond hair, by contrast, is rare. Because blonds and blondes are more likely to be fair-skinned as well as fair-haired, the term is also associated with light complexion.

The presence of both masculine and feminine forms for blond/blonde and brunet/brunette is due to their French (and ultimately Latin) roots, as it were, as opposed to the Germanic origins of black and red, the words for the other major hair colors, which have a neutral form.

Normally, English might have jettisoned one gendered form for blond/blonde. However, the venerable theme in popular culture of the blonde-haired woman as more sexually attractive and available (as well as flighty, shallow, and dimwitted), as compared to females with hair of another color, has caused the noun form blonde and brunette to endure.

The numerous terms for variations in blond hair, not necessarily in order of darkness, include sandy, strawberry, and dirty. Towhead (the first syllable refers to its resemblance to tow, flax or hemp fibers used for twine or yarn) describes a person with yellowish and often unruly hair.

Brunet and brunette, from the gender-specific diminutives of the French brun (“brown”), mean “brown haired.” (Brun and its diminutives originally also referred to a dark complexion.) As with blond and blonde, the male form is rarely used on its own as a noun, though the masculine and feminine variations persist probably because of the same double standard in association of hair color with female sexuality and with personality characteristics as mentioned in reference to blondes above. (Dark-haired women are stereotyped as serious, sophisticated, and capable.) Words for shades of brown hair, from darkest to lightest, are brunet/brunette, chestnut, walnut (the last two as compared to colors of the respective nuts), golden, and ash.

Redhead is yet another term for hair color used as a noun; in contrast to the colors mentioned above, it is not gender specific, though as blonde and brunette are much more common in usage than blond and brunet, it is more likely to refer to a woman than a man.

Variations in red hair, listed in alphabetical order rather than according to depth of color, include auburn, copper, ginger, and orange. (Auburn derives ultimately from the Latin word albus, meaning “white,” but thanks to the influence of brun, the French spelling — auborne — changed, as did the meaning, to “reddish brown.”) The prevailing — and long-standing — cultural stereotype about redheads is that they are hot tempered; the hair color has also been associated with a high libido.

Alone among descriptions of people with general hair tones, a black-haired person is never referred to by the word black alone.

Hair-color categories are arbitrary — strawberry blond is sometimes considered a type of red hair, and auburn might be classified as a type of brown hair — though a system called the Fischer-Saller scale, devised for anthropological and medical classification, assigns alphabetical letters and roman numerals to various grades of hair color.

Subscribe to Receive our Articles and Exercises via Email

ebook cover
  • You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
  • Subscribers get access to our exercise archives, writing courses, writing jobs and much more!
  • You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!
Try It Now

16 Responses to “The Story Behind Words for Hair Color”

  1. Leif G.S. Notae on February 21, 2012 10:01 am

    Huh, never thought about hair color in-depth like this. You guys never cease to amaze with the knowledge. Can’t wait to see what you come up with for the eye color (if I haven’t miss that one already).

    Thanks for sharing with us!

  2. Deborah H on February 21, 2012 11:10 am

    Thank you, Mark! This is splendid work, and it’s good to know about the Fischer-Saller scale.

    My naturally red hair, long since gone gray, through the years has been auburn, ginger, strawberry blonde, titian, and one unfortunate shade that my son named “Bride of Bozo,” but that’s not what it said on the box.

  3. Old Professor on February 21, 2012 1:40 pm

    You skipped over a fairly large contingent — the hair deprived people who are often called “baldy” or “chrome dome” or “skinhead” as well as several other euphemisms.
    (Maybe “skinhead” should be hyphenated.)
    I’ve ALWAYS enjoy your work and I thank you.

  4. thebluebird11 on February 21, 2012 1:48 pm

    @Deborah: Did you check the fine print on that box? That’s too funny! Thanks for sharing and giving me a laugh to start my day.
    @Mark: In contrast to redhead and towhead, I guess we shouldn’t refer to people with dark hair or light hair as blackheads or whiteheads LOL

  5. Charissa on February 21, 2012 2:06 pm

    Very interesting. I find myself sometimes searching for different ways to describe hair when I write a story, so this was helpful. The blond/blonde one especially has always irritated me. I’ve just used blonde as a noun and blond as an adjective.

  6. AmaT on February 21, 2012 3:18 pm

    Bride of Bozo!! HA! Gotta love our boys ~

  7. Janet on February 21, 2012 4:04 pm

    I love your daily emails and very much look forward to reading them each day. Thank you!

    Today I was surprised by your omission of the useful titian, to describe red hair. Oh dear, I think there is a limerick in there somewhere, but can’t take the time to write it.

    Thank you again for your wonderful Daily Writing Tips

  8. Mark MacKay on February 21, 2012 4:49 pm

    Don’t ignore the flax! Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” (La fille aux cheveux de lin) introduces another color into our hairy vocabulary.

  9. AnWulf on February 21, 2012 11:23 pm

    Brown didn’t come from French (brunette did) …
    brown
    O.E. brun “dark, dusky,” only developing a definite color sense 13c., from P.Gmc. *brunaz (cf. O.N. brunn, Dan. brun, O.Fris., O.H.G. brun, Du. bruin, Ger. braun), from PIE *bher-

    blond (adj.)
    late 15c., from O.Fr. blont “fair, blond” (12c.), from M.L. blundus “yellow”, perhaps from Frankish *blund. If it is a Germanic word, it is possibly related to O.E. blonden-feax “gray-haired”, from blondan, blandan “to mix”. According to Littré, the original sense of the French word was “a color midway between golden and light chestnut” which might account for the notion of “mixed”. O.E. beblonden meant “dyed”, so it is also possible that the root meaning of blond, if it is Germanic, may be “dyed”, as ancient Teutonic warriors were noted for dying their hair.

  10. Mark Nichol on February 22, 2012 4:30 pm

    Old:

    I also omitted references to gray and white hair, but this is due not to an ageist inclination but to a desire to focus on common (original) hair colors. I could devote an entire post referring to the follically challenged.

    PS: Skinhead is a closed compound.

  11. Sally on February 22, 2012 7:34 pm

    Nicely done on the etymology, AnWulf. I’d have no doubt that ‘blond (e)’ has a Germanic origin – the Classical Latin for yellow is ‘flavus.’

    I like the double-entdre of ‘blackhead’ and ‘whitehead’ – remember, however, that we do have the German name ‘Schwarzkopf’ which means exactly the former.

    And we do have English surnames, “Black,’ ‘White,’ ‘Brown’ and ‘Grey, and even ‘Russell’ (from the same root as Italian ‘rosso – red’), which might as well refer to hair-colour as to complexion.

    Here in Oz (Australia), it was once customary, *among men* (yes, we have gendered speech here too), to call a white-haired man ‘Snowy’ but to refer to a ginger- or carrot-top as ‘Bluey.’ Our current PM is a copper-top, whom political opponents, in an insulting attempt at humour, once called a ‘ranga’ (from the orange fur of the orang-utan)

    I’m an auburn – I can be very passionate, though not necessarily hot-blooded or libidinous.

  12. Sally on February 22, 2012 7:36 pm

    Ooops, ‘double-entendre.’

  13. Tally on February 23, 2012 3:53 am

    I’m pretty sure that using chestnut and walnut about hair color refers to the color of chestnut and walnut wood, not the color of the nuts themselves.

  14. Lucinda on February 23, 2012 5:38 pm

    I’ve never heard of “golden” or “ash” being used to describe brunette hair. I think those two belong in the list of blonde variations.

  15. John on February 24, 2012 3:16 pm

    If that isn’t confusing enough consider colors in various breeds of dogs where the same color has different names. For example, A Bernese Mountain Dog is described as a large tri-colored dog with a black, white and *rust* coat. That same color (allowing for some variation) in another breed is liver, brown, buff, tan, among others.

  16. Margaret Tanner on February 25, 2012 6:10 am

    Hi Mark,
    Thank you, what an informative blog. I didn’t realise that there were so many hair colours to choose from. You didn’t mention grey, for us more mature types – iron grey, silver grey etc.

    Cheers

    Margaret

Have something to say?





Become a Pro Member

Popular Articles