Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Hairy Metaphors

Last August, the folks at Oxford Dictionaries published a list of words that they were adding to their dictionaries. Among them was neckbeard, which is listed as "A growth of hair on a man's neck." But this self-describing definition is not why the term was added. More interestingly, the term connotes someone with "poor grooming habits" and who's "socially inept."

To quote another source:

I used neckbeard as slang for (usually overweight) men who sit in their basement and play video games. Less about how bad they look (though they look bad) than who has them.

The word got my attention for two reasons. One was that neckbeards are men who are stereotypically associated with computers, whether as gamers or as programmers—which is to say, it describes people I've known.

The second reason was more purely linguistic: the term neckbeard uses a style of grooming as shorthand (or synecdoche) to tell us something about the person. This got me to wondering whether there are other metaphoric meanings based on tonsorial characteristics. And indeed there are.

For starters, the term neckbeard has itself spawned the word legbeard, a term for a woman who declines to shave her legs. Per Urban Dictionary, the connotations of the term are the same as neckbeard.

Moving back to the face, an obvious word based on hair characteristics is a graybeard, which is a term for an old man. (This is another term that I happen to have personal experience with.) There's also just plain beard in the sense of a disguise—a person who acts as a front for someone else. A beard might be a person who performs financial transactions in order to hide the real principal behind the money. A very specific meaning of beard in this sense is also someone who's a decoy in a relationship—for example, when a gay man dates (or even marries) a woman in order to conceal his sexual orientation. Over the years, Hollywood has abounded with rumors about actors and their supposed beards.

Moving upward on the head, something or someone who's highbrow is cultured. In contrast, lowbrow suggests lack of sophistication or breeding. The negative connotation of a small distance between the eyes and the hairline (that is, of a low brow) goes back at least to the 1700s. The metaphoric senses of a low or high brow were well established in the 1800s, and the 20th century added middlebrow, which splits the difference in terms of taste and sophistication.

One characteristic that's used to represent a person is lack of hair. For example, intelligence—or at least intellectualism—is sometimes associated with baldness. An egghead—the "egg" part here providing a lovely picture of hairlessness—is one term for an intellectual. Another term for an intellectual that I ran across recently is double-dome. In what sounds like a speculative etymology, Wiktionary suggests that "The word conjures the image of two bald-headed men putting their heads together in an effort to solve a problem."

Somewhat contradictorily, a longhair can also be a term for an intellectual, and especially for someone who likes classical music. This is a term whose meaning has been amplified in my own lifetime. When I was young, older people used longhair as noted here, to refer to intellectuals or classical-music fans. But I grew up in the 1960s, when hair fashion was changing, and longhair also came to be used for counter-culturalists who grew their hair out: that is, for hippies. Consider these two cites from the OED:

"He planned to become a 'long hair' musician... He wanted to be a composer of symphonies." (1967)

"Would hippies and long~hairs sit on the youth commission?" (1969)

You can see why this might have been confusing for a young person. But the two senses are united in that they refer to people whose hair style is a symbol of interests outside the mainstream.

Speaking of grooming, a greaser is not just someone who puts grease in his hair, but "a swaggering young tough, especially a member of a street gang." This sense of the word gave us the nostalgic musical Grease, but the word also has a considerably more offensive sense that's used as an ethnic insult. There are also skinheads, who shave their hair as a sign of belonging to a subculture primarily associated with racism.

And then there's color. Gray-haired, white-haired, and grizzled all refer to hair color, and by implication, age. (You might think, as I did, that the term éminence grisean authority on a subject—likewise derives from hair color, since gris(e) is the French word for "gray." But the "gray" here refers either to the color of the habit worn by Pere Joseph, the original éminence gris, or to the shadowy dealings in which the monk tended to engage.)

Hair color, of course, need not be natural. A blue-hair is an older woman, so named because of the hair tint that such ladies sometimes use to remove a yellow cast to their gray hair. And a bottle blond is someone who's achieved a light shade only with chemical assistance.

What's notable to me about all of these terms is that they all have a negative cast. Calling someone a neckbeard or an egghead or a longhair or a bottle blond—well, these are not intended to be flattering descriptions. A possible exception is highbrow, but I'm not convinced that that word is always used in an admiring way.

But perhaps I've just been reading the wrong material. What other terms for hair styles (or lack-of-hair styles) are used as stand-ins for people?

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at Microsoft and Amazon, and currently works at Tableau Software. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday February 27th 2015, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great article, Mike. There's also the general metonymic device of referring to someone simply by characterizing their hair: the crewcut, the redhead, the ponytail, though these may all be neutral character-wise. It all gives great support to my favorite James Brown quote: "Sometimes you have to let your hair do the talking."
Friday February 27th 2015, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Mike P.
Hi, Orin. Yeah, I went back and forth on whether terms like "redhead" had connotative resonance, such that if we say "crewcut" or "redhead," we're saying something about the person and not just the hairstyle. Still thinking about it. :-)

Incidentally, I also considered "jarhead"--a term used for a U.S. Marine--since it seemed evocative of the hairstyle that new recruits get. But the sources I consulted seemed to agree that a "jarhead" is Southern US slang of a mule, which ended up getting applied to Marines.
Monday March 2nd 2015, 4:08 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
Other hairstyles that evoke associations and stereotypes: mullet, dreadlocks, or heaven forbid, the ponis (see urban dictionary).
Monday March 2nd 2015, 5:35 PM
Comment by: Mike P.
Hi, catwalker. I considered "mullet," but I wasn't sure that saying "I work with a mullet, you should hear him talk" is a viable sentence. What do you think, do those hairstyle nouns connote specific archetypes?
Tuesday March 3rd 2015, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Hair is charged with emotion. Recall that in Pope's "Rape of the Lock," when a gentleman dares to snip off a curl of Belinda's winsome tresses, she exclaims with wounded vanity:

Oh hadst thou, Cruel! been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!
Wednesday March 4th 2015, 11:32 AM
Comment by: Old Man Strength (NV)
Great article! The first word that came to my mind while reading was ginger, since the popular use is a "ginger" is anyone with red hair. Though I wonder if that is similar to calling someone a "mullet."
Saturday March 7th 2015, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@Old Man Strength--do you think that referring to a "ginger" suggests something about the nature of the person? Volatility or whatever.

PS My sense is that "ginger" is primarily a British usage. Would you agree?
Saturday April 4th 2015, 4:34 PM
Comment by: Kathleen P.
As a natural ginger, I once (early 20's) put a brunette rinse on my hair to see if people treated me differently. During that time I turned fewer heads, as they say, and received fewer invitations to date. The cliche is that blondes have more fun, but this redhead wouldn't EVER go against the anomaly nature gifted me with again. Yes, natural redheads are a genetic aberration, and due to that gene we feel pain and cold more intensely (thus need more anesthesia - twice I've awakened during surgery). But we keep our color much longer than others. I'm 71 and still have more red than silver.

The association of redheads with volatility is mostly urban myth, probably related to the simplistic notion that fire is hot, thus fire-colored hair must indicate hotheads. But you rarely see a ginger on a wanted poster (unless in Ireland?).

There is the added attraction to see "if the carpet matches the drapes," and if it does, man, you'd think they'd found the golden fleece ;)

I vote for the inclusion of gingers.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.