hairy subjects, part 2: hair accessories

Today's post was going to be a serious examination of sensitive subjects that affect many lives. But the Blogger ate my homework. So let's talk about hair some more! (So what if this means just giving a straight catalog(ue) of lexical differences (ho-hum)? It's what the blogger gods want, apparently.)

As we saw recently, some names for hairstyles (and parts thereof) differ in BrE and AmE. And things that one might put in or on one's hair differ as well.

First on our list is the thing to the left. The AmE word for it is barrette, whereas in BrE it is typically called a hair-slide. This particular one is from a wood-working studio in Canada, if you're interested.

Littler hair-holders made out of a folded piece of wire are called bobby pins in AmE--apparently because they were first used in 'bobbed' hairdos, and kirby-grips in BrE--based on the tradename Kirbigrip.

In AmE, the item worn by Alice at the right is typically called a head band. But in BrE, it's an Alice band, after Alice's headgear in John Tenniel's illustrations of Through the Looking Glass. Now, of course, head band could refer to a lot of other kinds of things as well, such as the type of thing a hippie or a martial-artist might wear across the forehead. The BrE term is much more specific, which is probably why one can find it from time to time in AmE as well.

A BrE hair band, on the other hand, is an elastic band (possibly decorated) for making a ponytail or pigtails/bunches. This little item (like rubber bands more generally) is a dialectal jamboree (orig. and predominantly AmE) in the US. I call this an elastic (and consider hair band to be another word for head band/Alice band). Elastic as a word for pony-tail holders is symboli{s/z}ed by the red bits on the map below from linguist Bert Vaux's Dialect Survey:

The purple in this map is the less-than-helpful term hair thing, leading me to wonder if the 'purple people' have short hair or particularly limited vocabularies. (Is hair thing really a lexicali{s/z}ed term with this specific a meaning? Americans, what do you think?) The royal blue is rubber band, and the gold is hair tie. See here for all the details and more maps.

A scrunchie, however, is a scrunchie--and an abomination--in any dialect.


  1. I use "hair thing" as a roughly lexicalized item, but to mean something more general than "hair elastic." I say "hair thing" when I don't care what it is, as long as it holds my hair back. A "hair thing" might be an elastic, or a scrunchie, or even a large barette or one of those big clips with teeth that I have no idea what to call.

    For reference, I grew up all around the US, but started having long hair in MA.

    Incedentally, a "rubber band," in my lexicon, is something fairly painful to put in ones hair.

  2. I would call it a "hair thing" - but I've never used one myself since my hair has never been long enough. I have heard myself say "elastic hair tie," but I would never say "elastic" by itself, nor would I ever say "rubber band."

  3. What I (from Los Angeles) say for a hair elastic is actually "ponytail holder." I do think "hair thing" is lexicalize though, and if somebody mentioned one I would know they meant a rubber band and not a clip or anything else.

  4. Oh yeah, and your use of "catalog(ue)" reminded me that for years I thought the two spellings were for different things - a catalog is what you got from JC Pennys while a card catalogue was what you used to find at the library. I would also have used catalogue to describe the act of organizing things ("I will go catalogue the specimens"). I also did the same thing with "programme" and "program" - you could program a computer or watch a TV program, but you always read the programme at the theater to see who the actors were.

  5. I say "ponytail holder," too- even if it's holding a braid (or plait) or bun or whatever (I'm from Chicago). Most of my friends call it that, too.

  6. As an Englishman who grew up with two sisters, I had no idea what a Kirby Grip was - I had to go and use Google Images to find a picture of one. To be honest there seem to be many different things go under that name - but the only image I found that correlated with 'a bent piece of wire' was something that my family would have called a hair grip. However, my American wife calls the same thing a bobby pin.

  7. The Grateful Dead were a head band


  8. In Michigan, I think "ponytail holder" is the default term. "hair tie" I wouldn't bat an eye at, either. I use "hair thing" specifically for ponytail holders, but in my case I think I picked it up as a semi-deliberate affectation in my teens.

  9. Interface's comment reminds me that if you search Google for hair band you end up with lots of sites with pictures of Bon Jovi and the like.

    So, hair thing is lexicali{s/z}ed. How about that!

    I also know the term ponytail holder, and one must assume that there are some of those in the 21.71% of 'other' respondents. They also have horsetail, which I've never heard myself, but which also doesn't come up in their survey as particularly particular to a region. But since (I believe) their survey was done on the web, there doesn't seem to be much control for where people (and their parents) come from, versus where they live.

  10. Oh, and like others here, I would never use the thing that I term a rubber band as a 'hair thing'. An elastic, as used in my dialect, is covered with some material so that it doesn't (ouch!) catch the hair.

    Nice to see all sorts of new people commenting!

  11. To me, this is a hair slide:

  12. In Ireland, a "hair band" is the thing Alice is wearing, although you might hear "Alice band" too.

    The ponytail holder is usually referred to as a "bobbin", or "hair bobbin". Except in the Waterford area, where they call it a "go-go" for some reason.

    I think the kirby grips would be "hair grips".

  13. Off-topic here, but about what Jack said. I'm British and I've always used 'program' when refering to a computer and 'programme' when meaning something on TV, and I think that's fairly normal here in the UK.

  14. In BrE hairband can also be referred to as a bobble, they're interchangeable.

  15. The ponytail thing is usually called a "hair elastic" here (Alberta, Canada). A barrette is a smaller clip, while the large ones are hair clips. The Alice band is a "hair band" or "head band," but the term head band generally refers to something wider made of fabric.

    Any of the above (or a bobby pin, scrunchie, or other object for styling hair) is a hair thing.

    We also have a term for the sort of hair elastic that has two beads on the ends and can be twisted around the hair, usually made for little girls. They're called "bobbles."

    A rubber band should never, ever go in your hair. Ouch!

  16. I'd call the barrette/hair-slide a "hair clip"--it's too big to be a barrette.

    I have two terms for little metal hair-holders. The kind that's mostly flat is a "bobby pin", while the kind shaped like a long-legged croquet hoop is a "hairpin".

    I'd call your head band an Alice band too, but that's because it's a useful distinction for me; there are a number of items that can be called "head band", including the kind of thing you see martial artists tying around their foreheads in silly wuxia films. Hence, an Alice band is a specific kind of head band. I picked up the useage from a British writer, but only because as soon as the term was used I knew exactly what it meant.

    The elastic band for holding ponytails is, in my idiolect, a ponytail holder. However, if someone asked for a hair thing I'd know what they meant.

    I am American, born and raised in western Pennsylvania.

  17. But do we all understand the expression "a comb-over"?

  18. I realise this has more to do with hairstyles than hair accessories, but "horsetail" got me thinking.

    As a Dane I know full well that the proper English term is "ponytail", but the Danish word is "hestehale" which translates literally to "horsetail". Checking my German dictionary I see that in German it's the same: "Pferdeschwanz", so perhaps it's a calque (isn't that the word?).

  19. On barrette v hair clip--I was going to say something about barrette having a broad meaning that took into account big and little things, whereas hair slide might not (and hair grip might be used for some of the smaller things I'd call a barrette). But then I didn't say that--and it seems clear that people have different ideas about it--which may or may not be regional. I had long hair and used those things for as long as I lived in NY State, and to me they were always barrettes.

    Dearieme, comb-over is international. I'd suspect there'd be different practices in whether one puts a hyphen in it or not, though. (Feel free to research--I CBATG at the moment.)

    Sili, yes calque is the term you're looking for. In which direction do you think it's been borrowed? It would be tempting to think that horsetail might be used in places where there was a lot of German (or Germanic) immigration in the US, but... (a) horsetail as a name for the hairstyle is not listed in the Dictionary of American Regional English, so I haven't got any good evidence for its location (the internet map isn't as reliable), and (b) horsetail as a name for the hairstyle could have come from British English (OED has BrE examples going back to 1872). So--an interesting hypothesis, but hard to know.

  20. I'm from Indiana, and I've always called it a ponytail holder. I have never heard of most of the other terms, except "hair thing" which I only now realized I would recognize if someone said it but I don't know if I'd ever say it myself.

  21. I'm from Southern California and I've almost always said "hair thing," but I've also frequently heard "ponytail holder."

  22. I've never heard the term Alice band before today, although I have heard head band. I'm with the Irish commenter above; it's a hair band. I've also never heard a pony-tail holder referred to as a hair band; it's a bobble.

    I've lived all my life in E Central Scotland.

  23. I didn't know ANY of these...interesting!


  24. When I had longer hair, if I were, say, over at a friend's house and my hair falling into my face started to bother me, I would probably ask if they had a "hair thing" I could borrow. I think it's mainly because, although I'm definitely picturing a ponytail holder (which is what I would say in a more formal or specific context) when I ask for that, really, I'd be happy to borrow anything they offered me as long as it got the hair out of the way. I'd also expect to hear other people use it in that same situation. I can't really think of another situation where I'd say "hair thing", though.

  25. Oh, and I forgot to specify: although I'd happily accept a barrette or scrunchie or big scary clip thing or whatever, if I asked for a hair thing, I'd expect a ponytail holder, and if asked for a hair thing, that's what I'd offer. (And I've always lived in Texas, if that's significant.)

  26. We call it a "hair tie" around our house, though I grew up with "Ponytail holder". I've never heard "hair thing!"

  27. I was born, raised, and continue to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Those things that are designed to hold the whole mass of hair in one bunch at the back of the head--in a ponytail-are called

    ponies (singular, pony) -- I've heard a lot of kids say that, as in, "Do you have a pony I can use?" -- particularly for the ones that are stretchy and covered with a smooth, braided-looking cover.

    The more decorative ones, in which the stretchy bit is covered with a ruched tube of fabric, is called a "scrunchie". Sorry.

    The generic term for all kinds of circular hair-control devices is "a good hair doober". While I think that is unique to our small social group, others seem to understand what is meant.

    I have never heard the usage "jamboree" for any type of hair control device.

    And I agreee with Lynn: I would never use the thing that I term a rubber band as a 'hair thing'.--unless it was an emergency.

  28. As young teenagers, my daughters, both now obviously great-grandmothers in their own right, used to voice the sixth and seventh elements of the word for those much-deprecated elasticated ruched tubes, thus: /'skɹʌndʒi/. I don't know if this was idiolectal, local (to west London, England) or standard, and perhaps analogous to grunge or bungee, but the spelling here suggests /tʃ/ in those positions.

  29. "Scrunchy" is a corruption of the trade name Scuncii.

    I also have thought "hairthing" was a real word ever since I was a kid (Ohio).

  30. The "hair thing" is called, at least in my personal idiolect, a ponytailer--something to keep your hair in its ponytail, in fact.

    I have no idea where this came from, and furthermore it involves reaching *waaaaay* back into my history, since I haven't had hair long enough for a ponytail since I was, well, it hasn't been properly long enough since I was 6, and had it wedged.

    BTW, I've lived in Oklahoma most of my life, but it definitely isn't local usage, since Mom called them ponytailers before we moved here. (This is also the woman who made up 'ratskies', though--I wouldn't put anything past her.)

  31. Just found this post after today's Guardian crossword used "hair slide," thereby thoroughly confusing me...

    My internet research to find out what it meant also turned up a few American uses of the term, but only to refer to a different kind of hair securer: one where you slide a stick into a small mesh (or similar) covering to hold the hair in place. I hadn't had a word for that before; is there a widely-recognized AmE term in use?

    Also, growing up in Cleveland, OH, I'd recognize "elastic" or "hair elastic" but in my house they were always called "ponytail rubber bands."

    If someone said "hair band" I'd think they were talking about an elastic as well... "headband" was my only word for, well, a headband. As I grew up I acquired a familiarity with "Alice band" but always thought of that as specifically made out of fabric (for that old-timey feel) whereas a headband was often plastic or, as others have said, could be worn on the forehead as well, etc.

  32. It was definitely a hairband when I was a child. I only became aware of Alice band much later and assumed it was American.

    It would never cross my mind that hairband might be used to mean the elastic thing for holding a ponytail. Are you sure about that? I know bobble for that (they often have a decorative plastic bobble) or of course scrunchie if wrapped in a sort of flouncy decorative sleeve of fabric. (Deriving which from scünci is some highly creative etymology!)

  33. I can't find any dictionary that defines hairband as the elastic thing you hold a ponytail together with, rather than the thing that holds hair back off the forehead. You have to look hard to find images of that labelled "hairband". BNC does throw up just one or two, so it exists, but there's at least one in COCA as well, so I see no obvious evidence it's British. OED's "band or fillet to confine the hair" is (as so often) hopelessly vague, and weirdly they have no citations after the 16th century! The problem with words like this is that dictionaries to tend to assume the meaning is self-evident, which, as this demonstrates, is rarely true.

  34. Midwest America, I have always called the elastic bands Ponytail holders. Always! except for the scrunchie which is more decorative bunched up fabric with an ponytail holder inside of it.

  35. Being from the midwest and living in multiple states "hair ties" was the general term used. This term was used ubiquitously in Iowa Texas Indiana And Missouri. So let's just say midwest.


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