There are a lot of ways to misuse ‘hirsute’

Hairy vocabulary

We’re going to make things a little “hairy” this week, in several senses of the word.

“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.”

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.

Finally, there’s a “harelip.” This is a congenital condition where the two sides of a person’s upper lip did not fully fuse in the womb, leaving a visible cleft. It’s called a “harelip” because it resembles the upper lip of a hare, which has a cleft between the top lip and the bunny’s nose. A “harelip” is less severe than a “cleft palate,” where the roof of the mouth has not fused. (We’ve written of the confusion “palate” itself endures.)

The term “harelip” can be considered offensive; say “cleft lip” instead, if you must mention it at all. And what you don’t want to do is write it as “hairlip,” as has been done. That’s a mustache. On someone who is, perhaps, “hirsute.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.