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
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
b) Library of Congress’ American Memory
– 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
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 . . . .
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