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TWTS: Both may come from a hare, but it's still "hide nor hair"

Sometimes it seems like homophones exist purely to make our lives more difficult. For example, there's the hair on your head and the hare eats all the lettuce in your garden. You could ask someone to style your hair, and end up with a bunny in an Armani suit.

A listener named Suzy Sherman got us thinking about the confusion over "hair" and "hare." Suzy wrote to us: "Just today I used the term 'hide nor hair' as in 'I haven't seen hide nor hair of the neighbors.' Do you know where this term comes from?"

In fact, we do.

"Hide" is an Old English term referring to the skin of animals. The phrase "hide nor hair" itself is old, going back to at least the 1300s. Back then, it could be used literally, as in "children of fair hide and hair." The pairing of "hide and hair" or "hide nor hair" came to mean "entirely" by the 1400s.

By the 19th century, examples just like the one Suzy wrote to us about began to appear: "I haven't seen hide nor hair of him since last week." In other words, you haven't seen anything whatsoever, not even a strand of hair or a little bit of skin.

Since this phrase so often appears with words like "find" or "see," Professor Anne Curzan was surprised when some language databases show that it can also can appear with "make." You might say something like, "I can't make hide nor hair of what she's doing." In other words, you can't make any sense, none whatsoever, of what she's doing.

In the process of looking into "hide nor hair," Professor Curzan went down a rabbit hole that naturally ended at "harebrained. Since it's likely some of us thought it was spelled "hairbrained," we thought it'd be a good idea to look into it. To hear our discussion on "harebrained," listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.