May 31, 2016

Words of the Month - Haircuts

        Perhaps it’s time for your summer haircut.  Perhaps you favor a buzz cut, or cornrows, a bun, or a bowl cut, or maybe even a comb-over.  These hairstyle names, like most, are pretty straightforward, named for their method or appearance.  Here are a few, however, with more interesting etymologies, and even some mystery.

bangs - The American version of the more logical British fringe is from the end of the nineteenth century.  It might derive from cutting the hair bang off, but since that usage isn’t recorded until about ten years after the hairstyle, who knows?

mullet - Could the name of the infamous hairstyle, short on the top and sides but left long in back, actually have been coined by the Beastie Boys?  Apparently it isn’t attested by the OED before their 1994 song “Mullet Head.”  Mullet-head has been a slang term for a stupid person since the mid-nineteenth century, and a mullet is a fish, both of which have been proposed as origins of the hairstyle name.  Certainly the hairstyle itself has been known since the 1970s at least, but what was it called back then?  Does anyone have access to haircutting guides from the 70s to find us some data?

ponytail - The origin of this hairstyle name seems quite obvious, from its perfectly straightforward resemblance to a pony’s tail.  However, apparently the word dates only to the 1950s.  Surely people put up their hair in that style before 1950, and if so, what did they call it?

pigtail - As everyone ought to know, a pigtail is a braid, while a ponytail is fastened only at the top and loose below.  (Sadly, I have seen some people refer to little ponytails as “pigtails.”  What is the world coming to?)  Braids of hair have been called pigtails since the middle of the eighteenth century, and the term seems to have been used first by soldiers and sailors, who named their hairstyle not directly after the animal, but after the twisted rolls of tobacco that were called pigtails.  Braids were also called queues at around the same period, from the French for “tail.”  Plait, originally meaning “fold,” was used for a braid of hair since the 1520s, and braid, from the same period, came from a verb meaning “weave, twist,” but also, interestingly, “entwine, deceive.”

bob - Originally referring to a horse’s tail cut short (1570s), the name of the human hairstyle first appeared around the 1680s.  The use of bob for a short hairstyle was revived in 1920 when the style took off for women.  Related words include bobby pin and bobcat.  One last hairstyle based on an animal’s rear appendage is the rattail.
dreadlocks - From 1960, the dread in dreadlocks refers both to the fear inspired by African warriors on which the style was supposed to be based, and also to the awe of God felt by the Rastafarians with whom the style was most associated.  The lock comes from Old English, and is a different root from the lock on a door or the lock on a canal.

pompadour - Hair swept up over the forehead, popularized in the last century by Elvis Presley, was named originally for Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour.  Here’s the thing, though: she was setting styles in the mid eighteenth century, but the word was not applied to hairstyles in English until the end of the nineteenth century.  Her hair was really not as bouffant as I think pompadour nowadays implies.

chignon - The hair bun low at the back of the neck comes from the French for “nape of the neck,” which seems straightforward enough.  The French word, however, comes from the Old French for “iron collar, shackles, noose.”  That got dark quickly!  (Or rather, historically speaking, that got light gradually.)


[Pictures:  Guitar Player, woodcut by Gregory Orloff, 1932 (Image from Oakton Community College);
Boteh, wood block print by Andrew Stone, 2015 (Image from Lacrime di Rospo);
Portrait with Dreadlocks, linocut by Stan van Oss (Image from Etsy shop StandePan);
Ulysses Butterfly Winged Woman, linocut by Deborah Klein, 2010 (Image from Deborah Klein).]

3 comments:

  1. What about a "bun"? On the face of it, it would seem obvious enough from the general shape. But is it relatively recent or has it been used to describe a hairstyle for centuries?

    As for the ponytail, I remember wearing one in the 1950s and having adolescent boys lift it up and make some comment about checking to find what was usually under a horse's tail. The boys thought they were terribly clever and humorous.

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  2. It was the very end of the nineteenth century for the hair bun.
    Certainly by the time I wore a ponytail in the 70s and 80s the novelty of the name must have worn off, because I don't remember anyone making hat joke with me. When first coined it was still seen as a metaphor, but a generation later it was just a hairstyle.

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