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shameless pleading

Harebrained

Now we avoid looking directly at it and leave an offering of carrots once a week.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term “hairbrained”? Which is the correct spelling: “hairbrained” or “harebrained”? — Lori Cash.

Aw, gee, why ask me when we have the internet? I’ll just plug “hairbrained” into Google News and push the magic button. Hmm, 43 hits, which isn’t a lot, but some of them are for reputable sites such as The Los Angeles Times (“The concert’s punk portion consisted of happily hair-brained and hair-raising arrangements…”), Discovery News (“Sounds like a hair-brained theory…”), and Esquire (“Torio takes a fatherly approach with the dim-witted Al, urging him to ‘leave him out’ of Al’s hair-brained schemes.”). The LA Times citation might, of course, be a lame pun, but the others are apparently guileless uses of that spelling. “Harebrained,” on the other hand, garners 127 results, many of which are from similarly august sources (“And yes, some of what he spouts is harebrained,” Washington Post). Hyphenation of both spellings, incidentally, varies.

So I assume we can agree not to let Google pick our next president, and now it’s time to open the envelope. The etymologically proper spelling is “hare-brained,” and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) seems to prefer that hyphenated form, although Merriam-Webster likes “harebrained,” as do I.

I said that “harebrained” was the “etymologically proper” spelling because the logic of “harebrained” is that the person so described acts as if he or she had no more brains or sense than a “hare,” which is, of course, an animal similar to, somewhat larger than, but not usually considered notably smarter than, the common rabbit. The product of such low-wattage thinking can also be rightly described as “harebrained,” as in the ever-popular “harebrained scheme.”

Ironically, in the mythologies of several cultures around the world, the hare is portrayed as a “trickster,” a supernatural entity which plays tricks on people, which would imply high intelligence. We happen to have a large stone figure of a hare outside the door to our house, which may be why the internet and telephone keep going out. But the thing is way too heavy to move, and anyway I’d be afraid of annoying it.

Probably the most famous hare in literature is the March Hare of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, named from the old English folk-saying “Mad as a March hare,” meaning very mad (insane) indeed. Hares mate in the spring, and the saying refers to their highly agitated dating behavior during the month of March. Our modern English word “hare” (in Old English, “hara”) comes from Germanic roots, possibly carrying the sense of “gray,” which many hares are. The adjective “harebrained” first appeared in written English in 1548, simultaneously with the appearance of the noun “harebrain,” meaning a witless or reckless person.

Many words change their spellings over time, and “hare” is among them. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?) The first citation for “harebrained” in the OED is from 1548 (“My desire is that none of you be so unadvised or harebrained as to be the occasion that [etc.]“). The second citation is from 1581, and contains something interesting: “If his sonne be haughtie, or haire brained, he termeth him courageous.” Yup, “haire brained,” because early on “hair” was an accepted spelling of “hare,” and this spelling remained common in Scotland well into the 18th century. Examples in the OED alternate between the “hare” and “hair” spellings, including “hair” samples from such un-harebrained writers as the great essayist William Hazlitt (“The excesses of mad, hairbrained, roaring mirth,” 1818).

If you’re feeling charitable (and credulous) at any given moment, you might imagine that people who spell “harebrained” as “hairbrained” today are simply employing this antiquated Scots spelling, perhaps even jonesing for some tasty haggis while they do so. But it’s far more likely that they’re laboring under the impression that the word implies that the “hairbrained” person has a head full of light, fluffy and useless hair where their brains should be. Given our culture’s obsession with hair, that’s entirely understandable, but it’s still off the mark. I suggest we stick with “harebrained,” even if in doing so we risk the wrath of hares.

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