Slang City Mail

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January 3, 2008

Slang of the Week: bad hair day (noun phrase)
a day when your hair (or your life) refuses to do what you’d like it to

Missy was supposed to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Tuesday, but she was having such a bad hair day that she sent her mother to pick it up instead.

Celebrity quote
“On a bad-hair day in Hollywood, it's Rachel Zoe to the rescue. One of Hollywood's hottest stylists, she is known for making over starlets with her own signature look -- long blond hair, spray-on tan and sexy '70s eyes.”
- Ruth Ryon for the LA Times

This phrase recently got my attention when I read an article about British hair “guru” Philip Kingsley, who claims to have coined it. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in that claim, and though it now appears extensively in the UK press, the early recorded uses of the term are from the US.

However, I have to appreciate his love of language; on his website, he refers to himself repeatedly as a trichologist. This rare word for someone who treats the hair and scalp probably sounds more impressive to his clients than “hairdresser,” and it should. According to one online London guide, his services start at around $350, roughly 24 times what I pay for the “trichological” services at the Central Square Super Cuts.

Whoever was responsible for inventing it, bad hair day has gained currency in the language. It has been the title of an album (by Weird Al Yankovic) and more than one movie. The variation “Bad Hair Life” was also used as the title of a documentary about people who can’t help themselves from pulling out their own hair. (In case you are collecting obscure hair-related terms, the disorder is called trichotillomania.)

Not only has a bad hair day become a common complaint, but the phrase has also expanded its meaning since it first cropped up in the late 1980s. Originally, a bad hair day was just a day when you had to go out and face the world wearing a hat. Now, it’s also used to describe a day when everything goes wrong and you shouldn’t have left the house at all. Even further from its original meaning, it sometimes appears in stories about things that have no hair. For example, a June article in Investors Chronicle begins by explaining, “Like both BP and Shell, Celtic Resources has had its bad hair day in Russia.”

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: The Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose. Is trichotillomania not obscure enough for you? How about glimstick, smabbled or znees? First published in 1785, this dictionary of cant is full of fun verbal oddities.