Some Hairy Expressions

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Warning: This post may offend some readers. Words, however, are just words and that’s what DWT is all about. Curious minds want to know!

DWT reader Jess received an email in which the sender said “I got a wild hair about me.” Jess says that the expression was used in the sense of acting impetuously.

However, the expression for which “wild hair” is a shortening is “to have a wild hair up one’s ass.” The meaning of this vulgar expression is “to have an obsession or fixation about something.”

Garrison Keillor conveys this sense in his August 2, 2008 News from Lake Woebegone segment. In this instance it’s not a hair but a quarter, and it’s not up anything, it’s between the butt cheeks. He’s talking about a woman who is very angry about something and is going to confront her brother about it:

…she stalked across that farmyard like somebody who’s carrying a quarter in their butt. If you go around carrying a quarter in your butt, you won’t think of anything else.

Disagreement exists as to why a hair should cause such single-minded discomfort, but I suppose there could be such a thing as a painful ingrown hair. The word “wild” in this context refers to the fact that the hair in question is not going where it is wanted.

The meaning implied in the email, “to act impetuously or in an uncharacteristic manner,” doesn’t seem as apt.

Some other “hairy” idioms:
to split hairs – “to dissect a subject down to the most trivial and unimportant details.” I want to give the go ahead and all you want to do is split hairs about what color the tags should be.

hair-brained – “foolish, ditzy.” The expression originates from the erratic behavior of hares and is more properly spelled harebrained. However, the spelling hair-brained is quite common. I never heard of a more harebrained idea in my life!

hair of the dog – short for “hair of the dog that bit you.” In modern usage it refers to the notion that a person with a hangover can cure himself by drinking in the morning what he was drinking the night before. The expression originates in an ancient homeopathic cure for the bite of a mad dog. Pliny the Elder gives several remedies, one of which is to rub into the wound ash, prepared by burning, “from the hair under the tail of the mad dog itself.”

by a hair’s breadth – “by a narrow margin.” He escaped death by a hair’s breadth. Possible origin: a formal unit of measurement called a hairbreadth, equal to one-forty-eighth of an inch.

hair-trigger – “a trigger that requires very little effort to release.” The term can be used figuratively: Her husband has a hair-trigger temper.

to let one’s hair down – “to relax and be at one’s ease with people.” Come on, Charlie! Let your hair down and dance! The term originated in the 1850s and probably first applied to women who wore their hair up in public.

hair-raising – “frightening and exciting.” Follow Indiana Jones in another hair-raising adventure.

a hairy situation – “something fraught with difficulty.” The conversation became a bit hairy once he mentioned Alison.

hairpin curve – “a curve in the road that goes back on itself.” Younger readers may not know what an old-fashioned hairpin looked like. The curve at the joined end was much wider than the curve of a mere bobby pin.

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21 thoughts on “Some Hairy Expressions”

  1. I never knew that the expression “wild hair” was so… specific. Being the owner of eyebrows with some hairs that curl in the opposite direction of the others, I assumed it meant following a contrary inclination, to do something unusual.

  2. I believe a ‘wild hair’ usually refers to a hair that grows sideways, under the skin, for a ways. This usually becomes an infected sore – as painful (and distracting) as any splinter.

    I always thought of a ‘wild hair up his ass’ as a state of being frantic, just about as if one had a raging pimple on one’s bottom, with no notion of how to deal with the problem.

    A ‘wild hair’ has always meant a frantic and irrational effort. Kind of like the way the wild hair grows sideways before erupting from the skin.

    ‘Let one’s hair down’ always seems to be a transition, from strict adherence to socially correct behavior, to rather wanton and decadent behavior. Sort of taking down an elaborate, formal hair style for an intimate encounter, in a back hallway somewhere. A judge might ‘let his hair down’ and smoke a joint or three with a lady of negotiable virtue, or three.

    I often encounter the phrase in the form of “Let your hair down and live!” as if obeying expectations and rules were a parody of (rebellious) living. This is often an invitation to debauchery and dissolution.

  3. Mari, I don’t know. Like ‘letting your hair down’, I think a distinct transition from polite usage to common usage rules is appropriate.

    Making transitions without warning or explanation can lose your audience. As a friend pointed out with horses, when we are tense or emotionally involved, we seldom communicate well. Whether we violate rules of usage when the audience thought we were being socially ‘proper’ or by straying into technical jargon, we risk upsetting our reader.

    Upset a reader because the piece is upsetting is one thing. Upset the reader because we violate agreed or assumed rules, including word usage, may lose us a reader.

  4. I dunno; I’ve always thought of (and read examples of) a “wild hair, etc.” as “doing something on the spur of the moment”. Go figure. Maybe there are regional/cultural colloqualisms for this one.

    You can also add another perhaps regional hairy expression from down here in Texas. The expression “finer than a frog’s hair” is to be excellent, happy or content. And the derivative, “finer than a frog’s hair split three ways” is to be absolutely so. (Since a hypothetical “frog’s hair is so “fine” you can’t see it with the naked eye, you understand…)

  5. Being Southern and living in the heart of Dixi, I hear my fair share of colloquial expressions with questionable connotations. One that is quite common is “fine as frog’s hair” – said in reference to the state of one’s general well being. Some people even add more to the phrase with – “And twice as hard to see” – meaning they are hard individuals to track down or visit with.

  6. I second Brad’s comment.

    I want to add, though, I think it’s sad that such a post at a writers’ help page had to come with a disclaimer such as the one at the top of this page.

  7. I appreciate the disclaimer at the top of the page. While I wasn’t offended by the explanations given regarding expressions in this post, a disclaimer about profanity is not out of order on a website with as much integrity as DWT.

  8. No offense, Maeve, I just found it sad and bizarre to have to do such a thing. 🙂 Maybe it should have come with an emote. 😀

  9. Robert:

    That is precisely how it was used in my friend’s email, actually. She had decided something quite impetuously and was emailing me about it. Thus, the “I got a wild hair about me to [do what she emailed about].” (It was meant to be “I got…” also, meaning that she had the idea in the past, which is how you usually hear that particular phrase in our “neck of the woods”. While it may not make sense to people grammatically, it is the way the saying generally is phrased.)

    It just might be a colloquial issue, as we do tend to say “I got a wild hair about me” (or “She got a wild hair about her”) when we talk about doing something impetuously; however, we say “He has a wild hair up his rear” when we mean that someone was acting in a rude manner by not letting an issue go. For example, if a friend went to Paris for the weekend in a spur-of-the-moment decision, we say that she got a wild hair about her to go to Paris last weekend. If a person comes into my office and starts harping about something that no one else cares about, I might look at another coworker after the other person leaves and say, “Man, he has a wild hair up his rear today, doesn’t he?”

    I’m thinking it is regional, as my husband hadn’t heard the phrase before, which really made me think about what it meant and how it originated.

  10. Another expression to add: You ain’t got the hair on your (insert vulgarism discussed previously for a person’s backside — three letters, one vowel). This is a biker expression indicating the person of whom you are speaking doesn’t have the courage/gall to commit a specific act. As in “Obie wants to bust that dude in the mouth for dropping a dime on him, but he ain’t got the hair on his a__ to do it.”

    RE: the warning at the beginning of this post — I support including it. I am virulently against any form of censorship, but recognize that not everyone carries that same standard. Therefore, it is appropriate to let people know what they’re about to step in BEFORE they get their foot dirty (ex. ratings on movies). Granted, we are supposed to all be adults here, but just because a person is over a certain age doesn’t mean they want to be exposed to things they would find objectionable.

  11. It’s not “wild hair” it’s “wild hare” and is meant to convey acting impulsively or randomly as if agitated by something significant and internal, like, say, a rodent in your rectum. Do some research.

  12. @ JJ Jenkins
    I think that if you were to research the question, you would find that no final authoritative conclusion can be drawn. The explanation I have given is valid. You are, of course, free to disagree.

    Here is a link to an article that discusses various opinions:

  13. Boy, this is a fascinating discussion (and fascinating time-waster).

    I think that it’s not just the terms used, but also the meaning of the phrase that seems to change with region.

    In the Southwest (Phoenix), I heard the term a lot. It was always used in the phrase “I had a wild hair up my butt (or a**)”, and it always referred to doing something on a wild and crazy impulse. I always imagined it to refer to an ingrown hair or hair that grows wildly, or even a hair from your head that gets down into your nether regions, and that irritates, or ‘gets under your skin’, to use another colloquialism, thus causing you to behave erratically. Wouldn’t you get jumpy if you sat down and something felt a little funny down there? Wouldn’t it make you behave like a crazy person in the eyes of others?

    P.S. – If this has never physically happened to you (as in, a real hair), I could understand why you don’t understand the expression. However, I assure you that it does happen to many people. That’s probably the reason it was changed from ‘hare’ to ‘hair’.

  14. In West Texas, where I grew up, “He got a wild hair/hare” and “He got a wild hare up his ass” mean the same thing. He did something impulsively, pursued a whim, or however else you want to put it.

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