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Q From Alison: I was reading a Lewis Lapham article in which he used the term hairbrained. I’d always assumed it was harebrained. Which is it, and how did it come about?

A It would be easy to say the right answer is harebrained, because that’s the first form recorded and the reference is pretty clearly to the apparently stupidly senseless behaviour of hares in the mating season (in this, they’re not so different from humans, I note sourly from long observation, but don’t let me side-track myself). Approach the term through mad March hares and you will get the idea.

So it’s equally easy to say that hairbrained is wrong. But even a quick look at the historical evidence stops one. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1548, and that has hare. But the second is from 1581, and that has hair. The editor who compiled the OED entry seems to have deliberately alternated examples in the two forms, since there’s roughly one of each cited from every century since.

The reason for this, at least in early years, was that hair was at the time another way of spelling hare. This spelling was preserved in Scotland into the eighteenth century. As a result, it’s hard to tell when people began to mistakenly write hairbrained instead of harebrained, in the belief that it referred to somebody who had a brain made of hair, or perhaps the size of a hair. When Sir Walter Scott used it in The Monastery in 1820 (“If hairbrained courage, and an outrageous spirit of gallantry, can make good his pretensions to the high lineage he claims, these qualities have never been denied him”), he was probably perpetuating the Scots spelling rather than committing a folk etymology.

There are many examples of the hair spelling, from Britain and America, throughout the nineteenth century and down to the present day. A Google search turned up 11600 examples of the hare form and 2670 of hair, showing that, though in the minority, it’s a substantial minority (though it’s hard to tell what proportion is from people who simply can’t spell). Examples even in edited prose are commonplace both in America and Britain. So it’s not enough to say that one is an error and the other not. At the very least, it’s an error of such antiquity that the patina of age has softened the hard edges of disfavour.

The current status of hairbrained is disputed: some style guides say that it should not be used, as does the Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary: “While hairbrained continues to be used and confused, it should be avoided in favor of harebrained which has been established as the correct spelling”. The Third Edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage describes it as an erroneous form “which is still occasionally found” (rather more often than that, Dr Burchfield, as my research shows). Other guides disagree, a case in point being Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage which says, “Our opinion based on the evidence is that it is established”.

My own feeling is that it is better to stick to harebrained; at least you have the original mental associations on your side with which to fight off critics.

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Page created 31 May 2003