Harelip, hairlip, and other hairy words.

As a blogger and writer (Cleft Heart and other books) , I get caught up from time to time in the etymology  of words (as opposed to that insect stuff, entomology). Etymology is the study of a word’s history, origins, and how it’s use and meaning have changed over time. 


When it comes to a hairy word like harelip, I must get serious first before we can have some fun with some hairy words . The term “harelip” can be considered offensive by many. The little girl pictured here—as all girls with harelips—will be probably be sensitive to the use of the term instead of the more proper, scientific term “cleft lip.”*  (The truly technical term for the condition, cheiloschisis, is a mouthful that even non-clefts have trouble pronouncing.)

Boys, like myself growing up, may be less sensitive. That’s because boys who have cleft lips can grow mustache and be free of the stigmatization of the upper lip scars from their cleft lip repair/closure. Stigmatizatiion from cleft palate* speech is another matter. (The  spelling and confusion  engendered by the word “palate” is addressed here.)







People historically have used the word “harelip” because cleft lips resemble the upper lip of a hare, which has a cleft between the top lip and the rabbit’s nose. If you must write the word harelip, for goodness sake don’t write it as “hairlip,” as many do. That would refer to a mustached dude.



That dude might be referred to as “hirsute.”  These days, young women find guys with a couple days’ stubble to be sexy. Not so in my day.

And now it’s time to have some etymological fun, courtesy of Merrill Perlman of the the renowned Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). He talks about the origins of “hairy words” here, taking a break from serious articles in the CJR about news. (CRJ is not all about the news’ obsession with cops, courts and sports).

“Hirsute” means “hairy,” but usually a scraggly kind of hairy, more Hagrid than Hemingway. The Oxford English Dictionary says “hirsute” comes from the Latin for “rough, shaggy, bristly,” and was first used in 1621. Journalists tend to call anyone with facial hair “hirsute,” though it can apply to someone with a lot of body hair as well.

“Hirsute” is also computer slang for something that is complicated or scary, a play on “hairy” that The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang traces to 1983. Partridge traces the older slang “hairy,” meaning “bad” or “scary,” to 1848.

Occasionally, “hirsute” is written as “hairsuit.” That could be a phonics malfunction, or a wardrobe malfunction, where “hirsute” is conflated with a “hair shirt.”

Hair shirt

A “hair shirt” (sometimes written “hair-shirt” or “hairshirt”) is a garment for people apologizing for something they have done. While it usually is worn metaphorically, in the olden days there was an actual garment, which the OED says was a “shirt made of haircloth, worn by ascetics and penitents.” You can imagine how itchy a “hair shirt” made from “haircloth” might be, and so why it was used for penance. In fact, sackcloth, traditionally worn by mourners, was made from goat hair, so it, too, was a form of “haircloth” sometimes used for purposes of humiliation or penance.

The “hair shirt” first appeared in 1789, the OED says, while “haircloth,” which is just what it sounds like, appeared around 1500. That “haircloth,” in turn, goes back to the Middle English “haire.” While one rarely sees “hair shirts” or “haircloth” outside of ecclesiastical contexts, they’re useful terms if the audience will understand them.

One would think there is an etymological connection between “hirsute” and “hair shirt,” but there really isn’t one; though they both relate to “hair,” the linguistic routes they took were different.”

See more language stuff here.

*A cleft lip is a congenital condition where the two sides of a person’s upper lip do not fully fuse in the womb, leaving a visible cleft.A “harelip” is less severe than a “cleft palate,” where the roof of the mouth has not fused. This often results in many developmental problems, including nasal hard-to-understand speech. 




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To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.

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