Thursday, 14 May 2009

A hairy situation

Hair can say a lot about a person, and in return we say a lot about hair. The word ‘hair’ itself comes from the Old English hær and the Old English form is related to the Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, Old High German and Old Norse forms – we’ve obviously been talking about hair to each other for a very long time.

Hair can be a great source of hilarity and at least two light-hearted definitions in The Chambers Dictionary poke a little fun. While mullet-supporters may describe their style as ‘business at the front, party at the back’, Chambers defines a mullet as ‘a hairstyle that is short at the front, long at the back, and ridiculous all round’. Some men may attempt to hide their bald patches with a combover, but they can’t hide from our editors, who define combover as ‘a vain attempt to make the most of one’s dwindling resources of hair’.

A handful of hairy stereotypes can be found in a new Chambers book, Women Can’t Park, Men Can’t Pack by Geoff Rolls. Geoff is a psychology lecturer, and he uses his knowhow to examine the psychological truths behind common stereotypes: is it true that blondes are dumb yet gentlemen prefer them? Are redheads passionate? Do stressed-out people go grey early?

The origin of the passionate redhead stereotype is hard to pin down, but is not surprising given how we think of the colour red in our society and, by extension, language. Red is a colour associated with hot things, like fire, lava and blood – in fact, one definition of red in The Chambers Dictionary is ‘the colour of blood’. Moreover, there are a lot of idioms in the English language that use heat, redness and blood to get across the feeling of extreme anger: spitting blood, seeing red, red mist, hot-tempered, fuming (no smoke without fire), your blood boiling and the phrase like a red rag to a bull (when bullfighters use a red cape, it is for the stimulating effect of the colour on the watching humans – not the colour-blind bull). So it is not surprising that these associations carry over to people with red hair – indeed, so pervasive is this stereotype of the hot-tempered redhead that another meaning of ‘redheaded’ is ‘angrily excited’.

Of course, once a stereotype sticks, it can be hard to shake it off, and in many ways it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Geoff speaks of a red-headed friend who is normally the most placid, laid back woman on the planet … until someone brings up her hair, when she unwittingly snaps into the stereotype with her furious reaction.

The funny thing about stereotypes is that some are actually based in fact and some seem to have come out of nowhere. I’m not going to tell you which are which of the others though and leave you with the old tease: you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Naomi Farmer

Bookmark this post

No comments:

Post a Comment