letting her hair down

Discuss word origins and meanings.

letting her hair down

Post by seeking knowledge » Mon Apr 04, 2005 3:47 pm

I am looking for the origin of the phrase "letting her hair down". I seem to recall seeing somewhere that it originated in ancient Greece, however I'm don't remember why or even if I have my facts straight. Also, pardon me if this has already been discussed, but I searched and couldn't find it.

letting her hair down

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Apr 05, 2005 8:18 am

Ashley, LETTING ONE’S HAIR DOWN means to behave in a free and uninhibited manner, give free expression to one’s private views, to relax and drop one’s reserve or inhibitions after a period of restraint, to behave informally.<“After they have a few drinks in them, they let their hair down and tell each other their problems.”>

The allusion is to the days when women wore their hair pinned up in various ways over their head for all their public appearances, but ‘let their hair down’ and allowed it to flow freely in the privacy of their homes. One source suggested (without evidence) that the expression may have originated in the days of Louis XIV (1638–1715), when elaborate hair styles such as the ‘fontange,’ a pile of hair, feathers, bows, and ornaments that rose two feet and more above the wearers heads, were popular among French women. On the other hand, the Oxford Dictionary of Slang claims that the expression did not see the light of day until 1974, which is easily refuted by the quotes below. My guess is that the truth lies somewhere in between.

The OED tells us that an earlier phrase for ‘letting one’s hair down’ was ‘to dishevel one’s hair’ and that it applied to both men and women:
<circa 1656 “The . . . wanton fashion of the womans DISHEVELING HER HAIR.”—‘The Shaking of the Olive Tree’ (1660) by Bishop Joseph Hall, page 244>

<1786 “Just as I was in the midst of my HAIR DISHEVELLING, I was summoned.”—‘Diary’ of F. Burney, 17 July>

<1800 “He had been at court in the morning; but though he had changed his clothes, he had omitted to DISHEVEL his hair.”—‘The Mourtray Family’ by E. Hervey, I. page 201>
The direct precursor of ‘let one’s hair down’ was LET ONE’S BACK HAIR DOWN and the earliest example I could dredge up was from 1847, where, as in the ‘dishevel’ examples above, the expression was being used in the literal sense. However, the 1850 example might be in the figurative sense – it’s difficult to say. BACK HAIR was the common 19th century expression for the long hair at the back of a woman's head.
<1836 “Their BACK HAIR underneath combed upwards.”— ‘Athenæum, No. 447.358>

<1837 “Busily engaged in brushing what ladies call their ‘BACK-HAIR.’—‘Pickwick Papers’ by Dickens, xxii.>

<1847 “She become crazy, despises her paternal parent, LETS HER ‘BACK-HAIR DOWN, and runs about in a nightgown. Why do crazy women in operas always let their ‘BACK-HAIR' DOWN?”—‘ The United States Democratic review,’ Volume 20, Issue 105, page 279>

<1850 “I am well aware that a little ranting and ‘LETTING DOWN THE BACK HAIR’ would have ‘told’ upon the audience with more noisy effect.”—in ‘Leader’ by G. H. Lewes, 7 December, page 882/3>

<1873 “If she had been a regular novel heroine at this crisis, she would have grown grey in a single night, had a dangerous illness, gone mad, or at least taken to pervading the house at unreasonable hours with HER BACK HAIR DOWN and much ringing of the hands.”—‘Work: A Story of Experience’ by Louisa M. Alcott, page 210>
The first definite figurative uses I found of ‘letting down one’s hair,’ though in variant forms, are the following:
<1925 “Helen and I have just had a grand heart-to-heart talk; WE’VE UNDONE OUR BACK HAIR.”—‘Vortex’ by Noel Coward, II. page 66>

<1933 “You needn't be coy, Beach . . . No reporters present. We can TAKE OUR HAIR DOWN and tell each other our right names.”—‘Heavy Weather’ by Wodehouse, vii. page 116>
By 1951 the familiar figurative expression was in common use (with ‘back hair’ still occasionally being seen):
<1951 “To LET THEIR HAIR DOWN and be frank about The world.”—‘Nones’ (1952) by Auden, page 31>

<1959 “Mr. Fredric Warburg has reminded us of this in a volume of autobiography . . . in which he LETS HIS HAIR DOWN.”—‘Listener,’ 15 October, page 608/1>

<1967 “After you'd gone, Mother—he really LET HIS BACK HAIR DOWN. I was right, you know—he ‘has’ been in prison.”—“Prisoner’s Base" by C. Fremlin, ix. page 67>

<1992 “We are concerned with antiquarian and gender politics and like to LET OUR HAIR DOWN with a little shamanic (native American) chanting and drumming.”—‘Guardian’>
(Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, American Heritage Dictionary, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang)

Ken G – April 4, 2005

letting her hair down

Post by Bobinwales » Tue Apr 05, 2005 12:33 pm

Regrettably, some of us can only let hair down figuratively.
But I can still remember the Sixties; I was a musician then and could really let my hair down.
(Exit stage left, sobbing).
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

letting her hair down

Post by seeking knowledge » Wed Apr 06, 2005 2:05 am

Ken, thank you for your input, it was helpful. Where do you get all that information from? Somehow, my ingenuity in research is sadly lacking.

I'm sorry, Bob from Wales, that your hair is limited to the social confines of the day. I don't have any problems with that. I can both let my hair down literally and figuratively.

letting her hair down

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Apr 06, 2005 5:31 am

Ashley, I make it all up – the whole thing’s a hoax! (&lt) Only kidding. The searchable online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helps, along with several good CD-ROM dictionaries, many books on word and phrase origins, plus sifting through searchable digitized libraries of old books, magazines, and newspapers for quotes and early usages, and, of course, plain old Google searches. Many of the quotes and connections I discover, for word and phrase etymologies, including some of the above, are older and/or different than anything that the OED – or anyone else in some cases – has to offer. Most colleges, universities, and I imagine, but am not certain, school districts allow you to tap into the many databases that they may subscribe to. I, for example, have access to the Colorado State University databases, and with all these many resources and with some determination and a bit of effort, plus a dash of induction, deduction, etc, I can usually figure out the ordinary almost instantaneously and the difficult pretty quickly – the impossible takes just a little longer. (<:)

Ken G – April 5, 2005

letting her hair down

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Apr 06, 2005 6:57 am

Ken, like many of us who visit Wordwizard, I am as impressed as Ashley is by the customary thoroughness of your research, so my interest was aroused by your brief outline of your modus operandi. I doubt I am the only person who would like to be able to follow the train of one of your etymological investigations in more detail. Would you be willing to lead us on a documented, step-by-step demonstration at some point in the near future? (Obviously you would omit access passwords etc.) Apart from the inherent interest value, I think we would all gain individually from the insights provided, and the WW site as a whole potentially stands to acquire additional research expertise which would be to everyone's benefit.

Finally, there is only so much that just one Ken can get around to researching in a single lifetime, long and productive though we all wish it to be! :-)
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letting her hair down

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Apr 07, 2005 7:13 am

Erik, I agree. We’ve got to get some fresh blood into the system. I would be glad to outline what I do, but I don’t know how useful it will be to someone who doesn’t have the resources readily available that I have access to. I have a fairly massive collection of books which are at my fingertips which I refer to first. One could go to a library, but just locating the books, etc. would be very time consuming. However, for someone who was really into it, the core set of references I use isn’t that large and many of these books are available in paperback and/or used online and really wouldn’t be that much of an investment. I will try to provide a bibliography and some approximate prices for those that might be interested (but that might be a separate project and, in fact, wouldn’t be a bad idea for a section on our resources page).

Next, I have the standard websites I immediately check to see if the word/phrase has already been discussed and I can mention those for those that don’t already know them, but I think most of those are already listed on our resources page. Access to a searchable version of the OED is, of course, critical as is access to searchable versions of journals, books, and magazines, etc. But anyone who has a connection to a university library (student or faculty), or possibly local libraries with a good collection of subscriptions, would probably be able to get their hands on some of this stuff. But without at least some of these tools, it might not be possible to do what I do and in a reasonable amount of time. However, I can attempt to reconstruct what I did in putting together the above “letting one’s hair down” to give the flavor of how I go about things and I will try to mention along the way resources that I use that are readily accessible to all as well as some of those that would require a student or faculty I.D.

Also, if anyone else has any nifty resources for the study of word and phrase origns that they have stumbled upon in their travels, please feel free to mention them.

Ken – April 6, 2005

letting her hair down

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Apr 07, 2005 9:43 am

Thanks, Ken -- that's most kind of you.
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letting her hair down

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Apr 11, 2005 7:54 am

Here is the outline of how I went about doing my research for the phrase ‘let your hair down.’ Hope what I have provided is of some use to those interested in doing this type of thing.

1) Phase I: Search my main print sources for the phrase origin with the following results, and these are the sources I would recommend (prices are approximate for new book including shipping from Amazon.com, but considerable money can be saved by buying used. For used books I mainly first check Amazon.com and bookfinder.com. Out of print books can sometimes be found at low prices). The order below is the order I usually check through these references. I check for possible permutations of the expression (e.g. let your/his/her/my/their/our hair down)

a) Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (3rd edition, 2004, $20): under Let your hair down – a paragraph on the subject with the Louis XVI guess and reference to the elaborate hairdo, the ‘fontange.’ Said that probably from women letting their hair down at night to relax.

b) Picturesque Expressions by Urdang (2nd edition, 1998, $28): under let [one's] harir down - two paragraphs on the subject including defintion, discussion, quote, and related expressions.

c) Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green (2000, $24): under let/take one’s hair down – mid-19th century, relax one’s inhibitions. Only one sentence.

c) American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997, $27): under Let one’s hair down – definition, sample sentence, says women let down their pinned up hair only in the privacy of their homes [circa 1900]

d) Oxford Dictionary of Slang (2000, $10): under Let one’s hair down (1974) only one sentence giving definition plus a 1992 quote but provides critical piece of info that the earlier expression was ‘let one’s BACK hair down’

e) Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2001, $16): under Let/take one’s hair down, to – a paragraph including definition and also tells that earlier expression was let down one’s BACK hair and says that women only let their hair down in privacy of own homes. Provide 1933 quote.

f) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (16th edition, 2000, $39): under Let one’s hair down – definition and say that hair was generally pinned up except let down in privacy of own homes

g) Dictionary of American Slang by Chapman (3rd edition, 1998, $32): nothing

h) Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang [Volume I (A-G), 1994, $54; Volume II (H-O), 1997, $54. Unfortunately Random House dropped the project several years ago so there is no Vol III & IV as originally planned. However, Oxford University Press has taken over the project and the final two volumes of this work will eventually be completed]: nothing

i) Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2nd edition, 1988, $29): nothing

j) Dictionary of American Slang by Wentworth & Flexner (1975, out of print): nothing

k) 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions by Funk (1993, $23, This is actually 4 books in 1 with a unified index: Hog on Ice, Thereby Hangs a Tale, Heavens to Betsy!, and Horsefeathers): nothing

l) Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2000, $53): nothing

m) I Hear America Talking (1976, our of print), Listening to America (1982, out of print), I Hear America Talking (1997, out of print) all by Stuart Flexner. These books are works of art and I’d call them collectors items, but they can be found at very low prices: nothing

2) Phase II: I check online sources and again I will list them with my first choice first

a) World Wide Words by Michael Quinion: http://www.worldwidewords.org

b) Word Detective by Evan Morris: http://www.word-detective.com

c) Random House’s Word Maven’s Word of the Day by Jesse Shiedlower: http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.p ... rc&fn=word

d) Wordorigins.org by http://www.wordorigins.org Dave Wilton

3) Phase III: I hit the Oxford English Dictionary and search on all permutations of the expression for quotes and possibly definitions and origins.

a) In one of my searches I stumble upon the fact that “to dishevel one’s hair” was an old synonym for letting one’s hair down and so I include that and a few related quotes. This is one of the beauties of the searchable OED. One can stumble upon interconnections that one has never seen before and that may never have before been mentioned in other listings of the phrase. Most universities subscribe to the OED so if you have a college I.D., you most likely have access and if you can get into the campus library and onto a P.C. you don’t need an I.D.

b) I next search the OED for first literal and figurative usage and hunt for early quotes

4) Phase IV: I next start sifting through searchable sources for early uses of the phrase in its different forms. I’m going to list some places (in no particular order) that I usually check depending upon the dates involved.

a) Time Archive (1923-present): http://www.time.com/time/magazine/archives

b) Library of Congress’ American Memory: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem – There is a ton of great stuff on this site. I often head for the 19th century periodical section which allows you to search for words and phrases in 23 periodicals from Atlantic Monthly to Scientific American to Harper’s to Scribner’s (the earliest issue available dates from 1815). The 19th century book collection also is a good place to look. I usually use a scattershot approach – you could spend your life searching for THE earliest usage. I usually quit if I’ve found a few things that predate what the OED had to offer. The beauty of this site is that each page of the periodical is searchable, whereas with many other sources you get a non-searchable picture of the page and have to sit and read the entire page to find what you are looking for.

c) The Making of America (MoA) project at the University of Wisconsin: –

http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/tex ... l=home.tpl

allows you to search through some 12,000 volumes of books and journals – that’s 3.5 million pages. The only minus of this set-up as mentioned above is that the search brings you to the page containing your word or phrase, but that page appears as a picture and is not searchable so that you have to read the page to find your passage, which is very time-consuming.

d) The Making of America (MoA) project at Cornell University: – http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa – is a much smaller collection than Wisconsin’s consisting of less than a million pages. It too has the disadvantage that individual pages are no searchable.

e) There are many more publicly available sites to search, but since I normally do much of my searching through college libraries which require passwords, and I am probably accessing some public sites there too, I’m really not certain what they all are.

5) Phase V: This phase of searching college library electronic sources may or may not precede phase IV. The material available on these sites is so massive that it is hard to even mention a fraction of them. Some of the sources that I usually head for immediately though are the following:

a) American Speech journal collection (1925 to the present) – this is an amazing resource, which specifically discusses what we do. You can find, for example, the famous 100 or so page dissertation on the etymology of the expression ‘O.K.’ Before this journal was available in searchable form, I used to go through the stacks looking for stuff, but it was a Sisyphean task and could chew up an afternoon like nothing.

b) American Dialect Society journal collection – similar to above

c) JStor is a searchable collection of all kinds of good stuff which including i) 20th century literature ii) Studies in English Literature (1500- ) iii) Journal of American Folklore . . . . . and on and on . . . .

d) HistoryOnline is a portal to all kinds of stuff including Palmer’s Full Text Online which gives access to about a million articles from The Times (1785 -1870) covering almost a century of British and world history.

e) And the list goes on. Half the time I am searching on these university available websites, I’m not even sure where I am, but just keep zeroing in through searches for what I’m looking for.

That’s about it. But even with all these amazing resources, you must be willing to invest time because you still have to sift through a lot of stuff to extract the gems. Hope this is useful to some of you.

Ken G – April 10, 2005

letting her hair down

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon Apr 11, 2005 8:20 am


Many, many thanks for taking the trouble to demonstrate both your methodology and your sources in such detail. Your information will be immensely helpful on every level to those wishing to undertake similar research.

Thanks once again!
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letting her hair down

Post by Tom E » Sat Sep 17, 2005 11:00 pm

Wow. Thanks for the description. I'm wondering what it's going to be like once the books of the world have been transcribed by Google.
Signature: Me: We! -- Ali

letting her hair down

Post by dalehileman » Sun Sep 18, 2005 1:26 am

Wow is right. I for one don't see how Ken makes the time to do it. Eating, sleeping, repairing the plumbing, reading the paper and a couple of mags, and pulling weeds leaves only an hour or two to surf some new word or phrase

But my thanks to Ken for his dedicated thoroughness and for revealing his sources

letting her hair down

Post by aelnamer » Mon Sep 19, 2005 5:52 pm

And also have time for Viola. Ken,Thanks for sharing this impressive process,and the array of resources. I recently came across this on line dictionary, http://www.english2american.com/ ,when researching the word 'Git' posted by Simon in another thread.I was just wondering if it is a good source,and has any one else used it?
19th of September,2005
Signature: Ahmed EL Namer
Dawson Creek,BC

letting her hair down

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Oct 04, 2005 5:21 pm

Ahmed, I have had this one bookmarked for some time. I have found it useful, but can't vouch for its accuracy.

Ken - October 4, 2005

letting her hair down

Post by aelnamer » Tue Oct 04, 2005 6:04 pm

Ken,Thank you. My fear is that when it comes to using these resources and applying some of the words/definition in today's language;could dilute what the meaning of an original word means.
4th of October,2005
Signature: Ahmed EL Namer
Dawson Creek,BC

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