The Grammarphobia Blog

Does Mitt Romney’s hair breathe?

Q: Note the new phrase “hare’s breath” in this Slate article. Someone might correct it soon (this is a Washington Post site after all), so grab it while you can.

A: Well, we were too late to spot the original error in that March 8 Slate article about the GOP primaries (we probably missed it by a hair’s breadth).

When we went to the website, the phrase “hare’s breath” had been “fixed”—sort of. Instead of “hare’s breath” (which would mean the exhalations of a rabbit), we found “hair’s breath.” Closer, but still no cigar.

Here’s the latest incarnation of that sentence (though we wouldn’t be surprised to see another “fix” after this posting appears):

“The numbers indicate that Mitt Romney, the on-again, off-again frontrunner in the Republican primaries, took the lion’s share of delegates at stake Tuesday, including a hair’s breath win in the important industrial state of Ohio.”

The word wanted here is “breadth” (that is, width), not “breath” (as in respiration). The common expression “hair’s breadth” means the width of a hair, and it’s used figuratively to indicate a narrow or close margin.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the use of “hair’s breadth” in writing is from Reginald Scot’s The Discouerie of Witchcraft (1584): “Limits … beyond the which they cannot passe one haires breadth.”

The term appeared a decade or so earlier without the possessive, as “hairbreadth.” The OED defines this as “the breadth or diameter of a hair; an infinitesimally small space or distance; a hair’s-breadth.”

In northern dialects of English, the phrase appeared even earlier—in the 1400s—as “heere-brede.” This old usage lasted into the 19th century, when it appeared in Francis Kildale Robinson’s A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases (1855).

The glossary illustrates the use of “hair-breed” with this example: “‘She’s dying by hair-breeds,’ by very slow degrees.”

Both the possessive “hair’s breadth” and the non-possessive “hairbreadth” are often used adjectivally, as the bungled phrase was used in the Slate article.

The OED’s earliest citation for the adjectival usage is from Shakespeare’s Othello (before 1616), in which Othello tells of “Heire-breadth scapes ith imminent deadly breach.”

Here’s a later example from A History of New York by “Diedrich Knickerbocker” (a k a Washington Irving), written in 1809: “His hair-breadth adventures and heroic exploits.”

Later in the 19th century, the possessive form first appeared as an adjective. The earliest example in the OED is from George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians (1841): “Our chief conversation was … hair’s-breadth escapes.”

So while Mitt Romney’s hair is in the news a lot (it even has a Facebook page), it does not breathe. A hair has “breadth,” not “breath.”

Check out our books about the English language