English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

Hairsplitting: blonde vs. brunette

Q:   Why do we say a blonde has blonde hair, but we never say a brunette has brunette hair? It’s always brown. Also, most nouns that describe people by hair color, certainly blonde and brunette, apply to women exclusively.

A: In answer to your first question, each of these words—“blond” (or “blonde”) and “brunet” (or “brunette”)—is both a noun and an adjective, according to standard dictionaries.

So it’s legitimate to say a person has “brunet” (or “brunette”) hair, although the word is used mostly as a noun (“She is a brunette”), and less often as an adjective (“She has brunette hair”).

Why isn’t “brunet” or “brunette” used more often as an adjective? Probably because “brown,” a good old Anglo-Saxon word, does a better job (“She has brown hair”). It’s a simpler, more familiar adjective, so there’s little need for “brunet” or “brunette.”

“Blond” or “blonde,” on the other hand, is an indispensable adjective, since there’s no better substitute.

Besides, it covers a lot of territory, from platinum to light chestnut, unlike some of the wordier alternatives: “yellow-haired,” “golden-haired,” “flaxen-haired,” “sandy-haired,” etc.

Now, about those spellings. The pairs are pronounced alike, but the different endings reflect the masculine and feminine forms in French.

In American English, according to dictionaries and usage guides, the nouns “blond” and “brunet” are used in reference to boys and men, while “blonde” and “brunette” are applied to girls and women.

The adjectives may or may not reflect gender—some guides recommend “blond” and “brunet” for both sexes, while some call for gendered adjectives.

 In modern British usage, the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the form blonde is now preferred in all senses.”

As we hinted above, these words came into English from French, but their earlier sources were not Gallic.

The French blond (feminine blonde) can be traced to the medieval Latin blondus or blundus (yellow).

The origin of the medieval Latin is uncertain, according to the OED, but other etymological sources suggest convincingly that it’s ultimately Germanic.

The French brunet (feminine brunette) is a diminutive of brun (brown), a word that came into French around 1100 from Germanic sources—“brown” was brun in Old English.

So when modern English borrowed “brunet” and “brunette” from French, it was simply borrowing a form of a word it already had—at least as an adjective.

In English, “blond”/“blonde” was first on the scene, and “brunet”/“brunette” came later.

An adjective spelled “blounde” was recorded a couple of times in the 1480s, but it soon disappeared. The adjective was re-introduced into English from modern French in the 17th century in masculine and feminine forms.

The noun first showed up in the 1820s in the feminine form. The earliest OED citation, from an 1822 issue of the Edinburgh Review, refers to “Brenda, the laughing blue-eyed blonde.”

The dictionary defines the term as “a person with blond hair; one with light or ‘fair’ hair and the corresponding complexion; esp. a woman, in which case spelt blonde.”

The adjective “brunette” was first recorded in English in 1712, the noun in 1713. But the masculine “brunet” wasn’t recorded until the late 19th century, Oxford says, the adjective in 1887 and the noun in 1890.

Those dates should tell you something. Even in olden times, a woman was more likely to be called a “blonde” or “brunette” than a man was to be called a “blond” or a “brunet.”

And today, as you suggest, when we hear those nouns we assume that a woman is being referred to, not a man.

We’ve seen some scholarly studies on hair-color stereotypes, but nothing on this specific subject. However, we assume that sexual stereotyping is responsible for the tendency to characterize women, but generally not men, in terms of hair color.

Seldom do we hear a short man with red hair described as “a petite redhead,” or a tall man with brown hair called “a leggy brunet,” or a buff, light-haired guy characterized as “a shapely blond.” 

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