A WORD IN THE HAND: HARE
Jack up March madness with hairbrained trend-bucking
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Since this is the last Friday in March it seems appropriate to think about hares. March hares, that is. Lewis Carroll immortalised the mad March Hare in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, but he did not invent the crazy critter.
According to the Phrase Finder, the earliest written reference to loony leporids was in a poem called Blowbol’s Test, published in about 1500. In modern English it goes like this: “Then they began to swear and stare/And be as brainless as a March hare.”
This phrase was not randomly pulled by its ears out of a poet’s hat. Many wildlife sources state that hares in the northern hemisphere start to behave strangely in March, the beginning of their breeding season. This is when male hares (known as jacks, hence the term “jack rabbit”, even though the male rabbit is actually called a buck) leap and box and kick and snort and fight and strut and generally behave like jackasses, just like the male members of any species trying to impress potential mates.
Some have commented that male hares behave like this for most of the year. If this is true then we can take it that the scrub, Cape, and brown hares found in our southern parts are currently as mad as March hares anywhere.
It is from the mentally challenged March hare that we get the word “harebrained”, used to describe a particularly badly thought-out scheme, such as, say, building a wall around Mexico. Over the past few decades, however, the origins of harebrained have been forgotten and the word is now more commonly spelt “hairbrained”, which is even allowed as an alternative by some dictionaries.
As pointed out by Grammarist.com, hairbrained “does sort of make sense when we consider that someone with hair in their brain probably isn’t much smarter than a hare”.
Recent medical research gives this the lie, however. Turns out we do have hairs on the inside of our heads, and they do some quite important stuff. A report published in January by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology concludes that cilia – the tiny hair-like filaments that line cells along the brain’s cavities – “are essential for the brain to develop normally”.
If this becomes widely known you might find the spelling of hairbrained going back to harebrained, unless we change the definition of the new word to mean, like, really clever.
But since it is March, let us embrace madness. If hairbrained and harebrained can be used interchangeably, there seems no reason we shouldn’t split a few more hare hairs here.
The phrase “bad hair day” went viral after it was said by Buffy in the 1992 film where she slays a clot of vampires. A bad hare day could be even more frightening. Imagine those March hares getting hold of wings and weapons.
Way before Buffy, fancy women in the 17th century used to be criticised for being dishevelled if they did not keep their hair neatly pinned up in curls and buns and beehives (sometimes containing real bees) on top of their heads. Thus it was that the phrase “let your hair down” became associated with behaving in an uninhibited fashion.
It’s not much of a leap from there to “let your hare down” if your hare is longing to be let loose so it can go a bit cray cray. Of course the opposite could also be true – if you’re behaving in a stiff, uptight, prim-and-proper fashion in March, you might be letting your hare down, as in disappointing it.
But let’s end this hare-raising debate before it makes your hare stand up on end.