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Widow’s peak

Q From Ton Hayward, The Netherlands: I read a sentence in a book and can’t figure the last part out: “Her dark hair was drawn back in a simple chignon that accentuated the elegance of her widow’s peak.” I cannot find an explanation of what widow’s peak means. I hope you can explain.

A Widow’s peak is a well-known English term for a V-shaped protrusion of hair at the forehead.

There has been a widespread superstition — I’ve found it recorded in Britain, Ireland and North America, and it was probably at one time a common belief throughout the English-speaking world — that a woman with this shape of forehead hair is destined to outlive her husband.

Some writers argue the superstition actually refers to another hair feature, the widow’s lock. G F Northall recorded in his Warwickshire Word-book in 1895 that it was “a small lock or fringe growing apart from the hair above the forehead”; he added, “Credulous persons believe that a girl so distinguished will become a widow soon after marriage.” Another version of the belief was recorded in Notes and Queries on 7 May 1853, which reproduced the report of a jury, dated 4 July 1692, on the physical examination of several women who were accused of witchcraft in Ipswich, Suffolk:

Upon searching the body of Widow Hoer, nothing appeared on her unnaturall, only her body verry much scratched, and on her head a strange lock of haire, verry long, and differing in color from the rest on her head, and matted or tangled together, which she said was a widow’s lock, and said, if it were cutt off she should die.

A book with the title Current Superstitions, published in 1896, recorded that in Labrador it was believed that if a girl’s lock were cut before marriage, she would be a widow.

Many writers have traced the widow’s peak superstition to old conventions about the clothing appropriate to a mourning widow, the traditional widow’s weeds. (Weed was a millennium ago a standard word for an item of clothing; only in the sixteenth century did it become restricted to mourning clothes, and in particular to those of a widow.) It is said that part of the widow’s costume at the time was a hood (perhaps a version of the bycoket, worn by both men and women) with a pointed crest at the front that resembled the widow’s peak. We have to presume that, through a kind of sympathetic magic, a woman who had that shape at the front of her hair was believed to be destined to wear widow’s weeds.

The term widow’s lock is recorded from about 1540 but widow’s peak only arrives in the eighteenth century, in an entry in Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1721. He equates it with the bandore, a form of head-dress that was even then quite out of fashion; a book of 1712 said that it was part of the costume of “our grandmothers”. This suggests people may indeed have imagined a link between hair shape and headwear.

Though it’s explicitly female, these days men are at least as often described as having widow’s peaks (widower’s peak is known but is rare), as the receding hairline of a balding man often leaves a central protruding peak. The term frequently turns up in books about genetics, because the hair shape is a classic example of a dominant inherited trait.

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Page created 22 Nov 2008