English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Harebrained or hairbrained?

Q: Here’s a term I’ve seen used but I’m unsure of the origin or its precise intention. Is it “harebrained,” like a hare? Or “hairbrained,” like a brain stuffed with hair? If the former, how is a hare involved?

A: The short answer is “harebrained,” but the short answer doesn’t do justice to your question. Here’s the story.

Both the “hare” and “hair” versions showed up in the 1500s, though both of those usages referred to the animal of the genus Lepus rather than the stuff that grows from follicles.

It turns out that “hair” and “haire” were variant spellings of “hare” in the 1500s, especially in Scottish English.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), a book by the English historian Edward Hall:

“My desire is that none of you be so unadvised or harebrained as to be the occasion that I in my defence shall colour and make red your tawny ground with the deaths of yourselves and the effusion of Christian blood.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The next example of the usage is from the English writer George Pettie’s 1581 translation of La civil conversazione, a work written in Italian by Stefano Guazzo: “If his sonne be haughtie, or haire brained, he termeth him courageous.”

The OED defines the term “hare-brained” (which it hyphenates) as “having or showing no more ‘brains’ or sense than a hare; heedless, reckless; rash, wild, mad. Of persons, their actions, etc.”

The “hair” version of the usage later inspired two alternative definitions: “having hair-sized brains” and “having brains stuffed with hair.” However, those are considered products of folk etymologies.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) notes that the “hair” spelling of “hare” was preserved in Scotland into the 1700s, making it impossible to tell exactly when “hairbrained” came to be associated with hair rather than hares.

Standard dictionaries now define “harebrained” as foolish, silly, or impractical. A few list “hairbrained” as a variant spelling, but “harebrained” is far more popular, with roughly twice as many hits on Google.

American Heritage, one of the dictionaries that include the “hair” version as a variant, says in a usage note: “While hairbrained continues to be used, the standard spelling of the word is harebrained.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield, describes the “hair” version as “an erroneous variant,” but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage accepts it as an “established” though secondary usage.

What do we think? We’ll stick with “harebrained.” Our brains are a bit woolly at times, but not quite hirsute.

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