Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Speakers and writers of English do get confused about “hair” and “hare.” In 2005 Chris added noting the frequent replacement of “hair’s breadth” with “hare’s breath” (On the issue of just how frequent “hare’s breath” is, though, in the forum.). We also find instances on the web of “hare shirt” and “hide nor hare of.”
These slips all replace “hair” with “hare.” The discussion about “hair-brained” raises the issue of a switch in the other direction, from “hare” to “hair.” This latter switch would appear to be the most likely one for a speaker of modern English, given the decline in the popularity of the word “hare” (In the corpus of Shakespeare, for example, “hare” is about five times more common than “rabbit;” in COCA the ratios are reversed). The thousands of examples of on the Internet suggest that speakers do commonly substitute “hair” for “hare.” Whether “snowshoe hair” is more than a pail, though, is difficult to determine, while in the case of “hair-brained” for “hare-brained” the semantics of “hair” and “hare” mingle in a way that raises the eggcorn potential of the substitution.
The problem with calling “hair-brained” an eggcorn of “hare-brained,” however, is determining which one is the acorn and which one is the eggcorn. A quick check with the OED shows that both “hare-brain” and “hair-brain” have track records in the English language that are several centuries long. “Hare-brain” is thought to precede “hair-brain” by several decades, but it’s hard to be certain, since the earliest citations, from the mid sixteenth century, derive from a the period when English spelling was still in flux. In those days “hare” was sometimes spelled “hair” and vice versa. We don’t have enough contextual information in the early citations to know which imagery was being invoked by speakers who used the phrase. Still, the rabbit imagery (i.e., “hare-brained”) has the best claim to lie behind the original phrase, not only because the earliest citations use the spelling “hare,” but also because the proverb “brainless as a March hare,” a reference to the antic behavior of rabbits in the spring breeding season, was already current at the beginning of the sixteenth century.1 “Hair-brained,” then, by this way of thinking, comes along to replace the rabbit image with some vague picture of a doll or scarecrow whose head is stuffed with hair. Or perhaps even hinting at a person whose head hair grows inward instead of outward.
Addendum: I see four examples on the web of this odd permutation of “hair-/hare-brained:”
: “I think it was such a hair-grained scheme the ‘powers that be’ back in Britain vetoed it straightaway. ”
Hard to imagine what the writers/speakers have in mind.
1 Much later the proverb would become the source of Lewis Carroll’s March Hare character in Alice in Wonderland .
Last edited by kem (2010-01-13 01:12:14)
“More hair than wit” fits in with the idea of hairbrainedness.
I thought we had had a longish discussion involving hairball ideas and going hairwire, but I don’t seem to be finding it. (The Internet service I’m connected to is doing funny things.)
*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
David, were you thinking of an older post of yours? There’s one here: http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/forum/view … hp?id=2871
I coulda sworn I’d read a discussion of this at Language Log or somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. Maybe I was just thinking of Arnold Z’s analysis in the Database, but it’s pretty short.
Nicely researched Kem. This type of effort is the most delightful part the forum.
At first blush neither “hare-brained” nor “hair-brained” made any sense to me (as far as imagery is concerned). You sure had to go back a few centuries to shed light on the situation… and even then it’s a shame that the spelling rules didn’t help out the situation.
Last edited by jorkel (2010-01-13 00:19:26)
And, FWIW, here’s the latest example I’ve stumbled upon (from an online discussion about movies):
She sets her sights on the owner of the bar and soon a hair-brained scheme to knock off his alcoholic wife is hatched.
The association between hair and braids could lead to this variation (many of the instances of which seem to be intentional puns, but not these.)
ski discussion board: “Powder needs a realistic answer that is financially possible and not hair braid scheme just to suit our needs to ski in October as before”
TV essay: “For example, in the episode “The Hair-Braided Scheme” on the show The Brady Bunch, they happened to flow the opening scenes right into the plot so there was almost no time lost.”
The actual name of the episode is The Hair-Brained Scheme: and it does not seem to involve a braid-wearing member of the Brady Bunch.
Twitter: “Someone just said “hair braid scheme” instead of “harebrained scheme” so I’ll be over here banging my head against the wall if you need me.”
There are also a lot of puns out there about string theory being “hair-braned.” This sort of brane is short for membrane.
Last edited by larrybob (2013-05-08 15:43:10)