hairy subjects, part 1: hairdos

Michelle, inspired by recent posts by Neil Gaiman (and here), wrote to ask about (AmE) bangs and (BrE) fringe, the words for hair cut shorter on the forehead. While they mostly mean the same thing, they don't seem to absolutely match. Bangs sit on your forehead, but some fringes don't--as I've heard fringe used to refer to bits of hair that are shorter than the rest but still too long to sit on the forehead, so they flip off to the side. I, myself, would not call such things bangs. I once slipped at my old South African hairdresser's (the one where they gave the most incredible head massages. Sometimes I can't believe I moved away from that), and asked for my bangs to be trimmed, which the hairdresser thought was hilarious. After that, she always asked "should I trim your bangers?" (which could mean, among other things, 'should I trim your sausages?' Maybe that's why I moved away). According to the Online Etymological Dictionary: "Bangs of hair first recorded 1878, Amer.Eng., though 1870 of horses (bang-tail), perhaps from notion of abruptness (cf. bang off "immediately, without delay")." Someone on Gaiman's site felt it was unseemly that the word bangs thus seemed to implicitly compare her face to a horse's bottom.

Michelle's query leads us on to other words for hair(-)styles. I'll save the matter of hair accessories for another post.

If hair is divided into three locks then woven together to make a 'rope', the result is called a plait in BrE and a braid in AmE--though both words are known in both countries. BrE plait is pronounced to rhyme with flat, whereas in AmE most speakers pronounce it like plate.

If the hair is tied into a bunch with an elastic band (I'll save discussion of that term for later, but if you can't wait to see how complicated it is, check out this map), then it could be in a pigtail or a ponytail, but in BrE you might also say that someone had her hair in bunches, particularly if there are two such bunches on either side of the head. (Clicking here should take you to the images available via Google.)

I'm shying away from putting pictures here, since the ones I find on the web are generally photos of real people who haven't given their permission for me to plaster their heads on my blog. So, if you want to see a lot of photos of our next haircut, go here, to a site without the same ethical qualms, it seems. (Be sure to page down--the first photo doesn't count.) And what is our next haircut, you ask? It's that emblem of British 1970s (and still!) rebellion the (BrE) Mohican, otherwise known as the (AmE) Mohawk. Why two names? It's all rather confusing actually, as Mohican is a term of questionable lineage and accuracy and the Mohawks are a completely different people; the translation blog Transubstantiation discussed this a bit in August. If you want to be really esoteric (or some would say 'p.c.'--but you know I hate that term--and others would say 'annoying'), you could call the haircut a Kanyin'kehaka, which is apparently what Mohawk people call themselves. Mohawk hairstyles were only worn by Mohawk men going to war. Or people hanging around doorways in Tottenham Court Road. As this story from the travel pages of a Hawaiian newspaper states (with subdued amazement), "Punks with spiked hair can still be seen around [London] town."

Once a rebel, always a tourist attraction?


  1. My (Mexican-American) hairstylist uses "fringe" to mean stuff that's longer than bangs but shorter than the rest of the hair, like you describe. They don't seem like bangs to me either, but I'm not sure I had a word to describe them before I heard fringe used in that way. (Useful, since I now have some fringe!)

  2. In Australia, a plait is the same thing as in Britain; but a braid is where the hair is plaited from the very front hairline, or from the crown, and then turns into a plait once it reaches the nape of the neck. I think I've heard that called a "French plait" as well. You can have two plaits, and your hair can be plaited or braided.

    I also think Australians would distinguish a ponytail (single ponytail at the back) from pigtails (one on each side).

  3. Yes: pigtails are, I think, the same as bunches - there have to be two of them; I've never heard of one bunch. Ponytail is definitely singular.

    Then there are terms you wouldn't use with your hair dresser: my daughter says that the hair scraped back into a ponytail on top of the head is "only ever known as a 'Croydon facelift'. For some things there is only one word." (This from a North Essex comprehensive).

    And what is the AmE for "mullet" -- that footballers' or ice-hockey players' hairdo with a short, square fringe and a tail down almost to the shoulders?

  4. Mullet is universal, I think. And if it isn't, it should be, as well as its derivations, frullet (frontal mullet), which is I think the same as an oyster; shaved head with a fringe at the front. *Shudders*
    Such terms should be widely recognised so that the haircuts themselves can be equally widely avoided.

  5. The AmE for mullet is mullet. The first citation in the OED is from the Beastie Boys, so it's reasonable to believe that it's originally an AmE term.

    Yes, the ponytail/pigtails distinction is as described above--both terms are used in both countries. Sorry if that wasn't clear. While pigtails/bunches prototypically come in pairs, I think they can be more. I've just googled 'hair in four pigtails' and got several hits. And on a muppet-related website, I found a character described as "(In cute baby-suit and hair in three bunches)".

  6. Hi Lynne, thanks for the mention and the post. Can't tell you how thrilled I am to link up one of my favourite blogs with my favourite authors.
    After years of having a short crop, I've finally let my hair grow and need to buy some hair bands/bobbles and grips/slides for my own locks, so I'll keep my eyes open for any new and unfamiliar terms for hair decorations.

  7. I always found the term shag, as used to refer to Jennifer Aniston's famous and much-copied old hairdo, quite amusing. In fact there was a bit in a magazine i read at the time which said something like, 'What not to say to your hunky male hairdresser: "I'd like a shag please" - the shame!!'. Presumably shag was/ is an AmE term in this context. :)

    Also, re: bridget's post, usually BrE would refer to a fringe, rather than to some fringe.

  8. I don't understand why a fringe must be shorter than the rest of the hair. If hair comes down from the forehead and covers the eyes, is that not a fringe, even if the rest of the head is shaved? (I'm from Australia, if that makes any difference)

  9. Pdm71, what you call a braid is called a French braid in AmE, and what you call a plait is a regular braid. I don't think I've ever in my life heard plait come up in regular conversation - I only learned the word because it was in Roald Dahl's "Matilda" which I read in elementary school.

  10. "two such bunches on either side": no, no, a thousand times no. Where I come from, that would mean that the two were on the right side or on the left but not on both sides. We'd say "two such bunches on each side". The first time I heard that "either" usage it made no sense to me at all; how could houses be on either side of the road?

  11. Troy--you're absolutely right. You could have a fringe without longer hair elsewhere. It's not a typical hair(-)style, but if you had it, you'd have a fringe/some bangs.

    Dearieme--the either that you are protesting is not an Americanism. Take, for example, this example from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (via the OED):

    1820 SCOTT Ivanhoe iii, There was a huge fireplace at either end of the hall.

  12. Dear lady, I didn't claim it as an Americanism, though I did protest AGAINST it. I think of it as an Englishism, and can only assume that the good Watty put it in for his English readers.

  13. Ally, thanks. I paused for a bit and felt equally uncomfortable with 'some' and 'a.' See, I'm not a native fringe-speaker. :-)

  14. I forgot--I meant to mention BrE fringe as a word meaning 'non-mainstream' in the (performing) arts, as in various Fringe Festivals (i.e. arts festivals 'on the fringe of' major arts festivals, most famously Edinburgh's.

  15. Hmm, in Canada, pigtails are braids, though usually only used when you have one on each side of your head.

  16. I agree with what anonymous said directly above. Pigtails refer to braids, because pigs have curly tails, and ponytails refer to hair in an elastic but then left loose, because that is what ponies' tails look like.ia

  17. But pigs' tails aren't braided/plaited, and unbraided pigtails can be curly (e.g. Cindy Brady's).

    To me, pigtails can be braided, but usually aren't. The term is about the placement of the 'tails' not the constitution of them. I just checked Google Images and discovered that if you search images for 'pigtails' hoping to find pictures of hair(-)styles, you really should have 'safe search' on. Once I re-searched that way, it was clear that plenty of people are happy to use pigtail to refer to things that aren't braided. So, we're probably dealing with fairly locali{s/z}ed uses of the word.

  18. "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" by Ezra Pound starts "While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead..." I've heard (though I can't find the reference right now) that Pound originally wrote something about bangs, was told he needed to say fringe as he was in England, and decided in the end to rephrase it this way to avoid both regional terms.

  19. I only call it a ponytail if all the hair's in one bunch. If it's two bunches, it's pigtails. More than two has to be specially remarked, with something like "She had her hair in four pigtails".

    Pigtails can be plaited/braided, but if they're longer than about shoulder-length I'd be more likely to call them "braids".

  20. In my part of Canada (Alberta), ponytail is used for one bundle of hair, and pigtails is used for two or more. I have heard pigtails for multiple braids once or twice, but it's not common here, and people usually have to explain that they mean two braids.

    A braid that begins higher up close to the head and gathering in more hair as it progresses is called a French braid.

    I know the word plait from my British grandmothers and various British children's books, but it's not something I'd expect an Albertan to say.

  21. Probably a bit of folk etymology here, but I had always imagined that the Mohican haircut in Britain had something to do with the BBC dramatisation of The Last of the Mohicans in 1971. It would have been repeated either the following year or the year after, so could have been in the memories of the 'early adopters'. Interestingly, IIRC, Philip Madoc who played Magua was the only character who actually had a Mohican.

  22. Here is an amusing discussion of bangs/fringe (and a few other such terms) from a clever young Australian video blogger. A high percentage of her viewers are American, so she is explaining Australian slang (which apparently overlaps significantly with its British counterpart) to them.
    If you're easily offended, you should skip this one, but most people will enjoy it.


    Bangs, by They Might Be Giants. Just sayin'.

  24. Am/Can/E, I used pigtails and ponytails interchangeably, for braided or just tied hanks of hair. No, I never heard bunches in my life, in my ears that would imply a bit of a mess. Pigtails might imply a shorter hank of hair, if anything different.

    I read in one of the Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, when she wanted bangs, her parents called the style a Lunatic Fringe.

    And They Might Be Giants have a song about Bangs.

  25. I'm no expert on hairstyles, but if the hair coming down the forehead is so long it has to be swept to one side, it surely can't be called a fringe. The point about a fringe (which seems to be the same thing as bangs) is that the hair hangs straight down the forehead and ends there, normally no lower than the eyebrows in the interests of being able to see where you're going -- creating a kind of, well, fringe. Just like any other kind of fringe, ie some strands with their ends lined up. Maybe in specialist hairdresser lingo they give the terms a different meaning but in everyday parlance it sounds to me as if fringe and bangs are exactly the same.

  26. I grew up in West Texas, and I remember hearing "plait" - always pronounced like "flat" - quite often from the older, more rustic locals and from my father, a Virginian. I've always associated that word with the rural American South.

  27. (AmE) there are many words for a braid/plaite where you encorporate hair as you go:

    Two strands, flat is a herringbone

    I don't have a term for two strands, rolled (usually a braid that snakes around ones head) but I would probably call it a french rope, as a twisted plaite would be a rope not a braid.

    A flat three-strand braid is the french braid with which most of you are familiar but if you braid the other way, with the outer strands crossing under the middle strand you get a raised braid, known as a Dutch braid.

    Again, from there I don't have specific terms and would describe plaites as "a four/five/six-strand flat/square braid"

  28. Just to add, Kent English raised in the 90/00s

    One 'tail' of hair- a ponytail. I can't think of any other name for it.

    Braid that starts level with the middle of the ears- plait.

    Braid that starts at the top of the ears- French plait.

    Bunches- one 'tail' on either side of the head, always unplaited.

    Pigtails- Plaited bunches.

    In British English, braids are a whole thing of their own. They tend to either resemble cornrows (a hairstyle typical among black people, but common on chavvy white girls), or they have string woven into them. Bane of foreign holidays- in any tourist resort where Brits visit often, you'll find people who do 'braids', both string and plaited version. Little girls love them, but the string ones are a nightmare because you have to cut them out at the root. And the cornrow plaited styles expose massive gaps of shocking white scalp so they don't really look that good either.

  29. Canadian Comment04 March, 2014 23:26

    I disagree with the Anonymous post that Canadian pigtails are braided. Perhaps in that posters family or particular locality, but not everywhere. Everyone I know would use the standard definitions already mentioned.

    Ponytail: 1 bunch at the back (or a "side ponytail" or "top ponytail" if it were an '80s party!)
    Pigtails: 1 (or, uncommonly, more) bunch on either (or each, for those who hate "either") side of the head. If they were braided, I'd either call them pigtails or braided pigtails to be more specific.

    Question: Does BrE use "cornrows"? Cornrows=AmE/CanE for the multiple rows of French braids (commonly seen on black males -- or, in the 90s/2000s on teenage girls, often decorated with beads à la Bo Derek)

  30. Does anyone else recall the poem about the “sage in days of yore” whose pigtail hung behind him, no matter how he tried to get it in front?

  31. a bit late but the poem was by William Makepeace Thackeray, called a Tragic Story


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)