Keep your hair on
One of my favourite recreational hobbies is watching football live and in particular my team, Shrewsbury Town, a labour of love if anything is. Occasionally, in sheer frustration, usually, when the latest inept striker misses an open goal, I am known to throw down my hat in exasperation. On such occasions, I am encouraged to keep my hair on, to calm down.
It seems as though, inadvertently, I am acting out an age old ritual which goes some way to explaining the origin of our phrase. According to a discussion on the subject in the magazine, Notes and Queries, of 12th July 1902 we are informed that “this expression is common or frequently heard in Gloucestershire. Its origin is supposed to be coeval with wigs or the wig period. Irascible and aged gentlemen” – me to a T – “when mad with passion, have been known not only to curse and swear, but to tear their wigs from their heads, and to trample the under their feet, or to throw them into the fire….if a man wished in his passion to be emphatic, he threw off his wig”. An amusing image, to be sure.
Passing English of the Victorian Era, published in 1909 by the lexicographer J Redding Ware, which was a useful dictionary of slang and phrase, dated our idiom to 1800 and onwards and associated it with the lower classes. His definition of Keep yer ‘air on – the dropping of the aspirant is a sign of the lower orders if there ever was one! – is “a favourite monitory proverb recommending patience as distinct from impatience, and tearing the ‘air off”. Barriere and Leland’s Dictionary of Slang, jargon and Cant of 1889 gives an example, albeit undated, of its usage, from the Sporting Time, “with the most perfect good temper the new-comer answered the expostulations of the hat woman with a “Keep your hair on, Lizer””. The figurative sense of calming down is crystal clear.
What is interesting about our phrase is when it appears in print there are contemporary examples from all around the world. The South Australian Register of 18th October 1879, quoting the Glasgow Weekly Mail of 18th August, describing the scramble for luggage when a boat lands, reported, “..and a wordy combat with porters and railway servants who,, should you get excited, coolly tell you to keep your hair on”. The New Zealand Observer of 18th November 1882 commented, “Mary, the buxom cook at a certain hotel, says she would go for anybody if he were to put anything about her in the Observer. Keep your hair on, old girl”.
In 1882 David Murray made a pun of the idiom in his Val Strange, A Story of the Primrose Way, “keep your hair on, returned Hiram, in a tone of soft expostulation. You’re in no hurry to get bald”. The immortal bilk, Bret Harte, used the phrase in 1885 in his A Ship of ’49, “keep yer hair on, remonstrated the old man with dark intelligence”. Looking for earlier examples of its usage I found reference to a comic song, described as “very laughable”, called Keep Your hair On which was in the repertoire of a certain Ted Callingham around 1873.
It is tempting to see the development of this phrase as, initially, the rather eccentric and amusing behaviour of wig wearers who got steamed up and found some expression of their anger by dashing their syrup to the ground. It then moved into popular speech and then suddenly, and almost universally around the English-speaking world, found its way into print in the late 1870s and 1880s. I’m sure this is the norm but it is interesting to see such suppositions confirmed.