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Earlier today, Ann Althouse noted President Obama's use of the expression "hair on X" to mean that X is complicated, from David Remnick's New Yorker interview. The two Obama quotes that she discusses:

Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it — there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody.

Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge….

Googling the term lead Ann to the conclusion that "this phrase … came from the realm of business deals", based on "a 2010 Globe and Mail article defining mergers & acquisitions buzzwords":

So it came from The World of Those Terrible One-Percenters. It's got nothing to do with the rough and tumble of that experience, long ago, when we smoked pot and wanted a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen, down to there, hair.

But in fact I think that we can let the one-percenters, terrible and otherwise, off the  hook.  Consider the famous early-1970s quote from the physicist John Wheeler, summarizing a theorem about black holes (known as the "no-hair theorem") in the phrase "Black holes have no hair". This means, as Wikipedia puts it, that

all black hole solutions of the Einstein-Maxwell equations of gravitation and electromagnetism in general relativity can be completely characterized by only three externally observable classical parameters: mass, electric charge, and angular momentum. All other information (for which "hair" is a metaphor) about the matter which formed a black hole or is falling into it, "disappears" behind the black-hole event horizon and is therefore permanently inaccessible to external observers.

Here's a passage from Charles Misner, Kip Thorne, and John Wheeler, Gravitation 1973, showing that the usage is at least that old:

This usage naturally leads to talking about hair being on things, as e.g. in M.G. Alford et al., "Discrete quantum hair on black holes and the non-Abelian Aharonov-Bohm effect", Nuclear Physics B 1990, or Sidney Coleman et al., "Growing Hair on Black Holes", Physical Review Letters 1991, or Takashi Torii et al., "Scalar hair on the black hole in asymptotically anti–de Sitter spacetime", Physical Review D 2001, or etc. (For a review, see V. Gates et al., "Stuperspace", Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, 1985).

And I believe that this physicists' sense of hair  comes from an earlier hacker/engineering usage, summarized in the Jargon File entry for hair:

[back-formation from hairy] The complications that make something hairy. “Decoding TECO commands requires a certain amount of hair.” Often seen in the phrase infinite hair, which connotes extreme complexity. Also in hairiferous (tending to promote hair growth): “GNUMACS elisp encourages lusers to write complex editing modes.” “Yeah, it's pretty hairiferous all right.” (or just: “Hair squared!”)

I recall hearing this usage around MIT in 1965 or 1966, which would be consistent with the mention of TECO in the jargon file entry.

And in the (I think earlier) adjectival form hairy, the OED traces a version of this usage back to British schoolboys in the mid-19th century (lots of hacker jargon come from schoolboy slang, including the word hack itself):

A.1.f. In various fig. and slang senses: difficult (quot. 1848); out-of-date, passé; frightening, hair-raising; crude, clumsy, rough, erratic.

1848   A. H. Clough Bothie of Toper-Na-Fuosich ix. 146   He..never once had brushed up his hairy Aldrich.

Some additional context from that work:

Three weeks hence be it time to exhume our dreary classics.
And in the chorus joined Lindsay, the Piper, the Dialectician.
Three weeks hence we return to the shop and the wash-hand-stand-bason,
Three weeks hence unbury Thicksides and hairy Aldrich.
But the Tutor enquired, the grave man, nick-named Adam,
Who are they that go, and when do they promise returning ?
Answer was made him by Philip, the poet, the eloquent speaker.
Airlie remains, I presume, was the answer, and Hobbes, peradventure ;
Tarry let Airlie May-fairly, and Hobbes, brief-kilted hero,
Tarry let Hobbes in kilt, and Airlie ' abide in his breeches ; '
Tarry let these, and read, four Pindars apiece an it like them !
Weary of reading am I, and weary of walks prescribed us ;
Weary of Ethic and Logic, of Rhetoric yet more weary,
Eager to range over heather unfettered of gillie and marquis,
I will away with the rest, and bury my hairy 'Tottle.

That "hairy Aldrich" is presumably Henry Aldrich's Artis Logicae Compendium, which was written in the late 17th century but "continued to be read at Oxford (in Mansel's revised edition) till long past the middle of the 19th century", according to Wikipedia. And "hairy 'Tottle" is of course Aristotle.

Some more recent OED citations:

1946 B. Marshall George Brown's Schooldays 7 There you go again using great long hairy words.
1962 D. Slayton in Into Orbit 22 If you happen to be pulling a lot of might get a little hairy trying to manipulate the controls with all the finesse you'd need.
1966 ‘W. Cooper’ Mem. New Man iii. iv. 239 The problem was of the kind that Mike described in his up-to-date slang as ‘hairy’, meaning complex in surface detail and involving more parameters than anybody would want to cope with simultaneously. In a word, messy.

It's possible that the M&A culture derived this usage independently from 19th-century schoolboy slang; but pending evidence of such a history, I'm going with the theory that it arrived on Wall Street with the advent of a new breed of "quants" in the 1990s. As Wikipedia explains,

Quantitative analysts often come from mathematics, physics or engineering backgrounds rather than economics-related fields, and quantitative analysis is a major source of employment for people with mathematics and physics Ph.D. degrees in the US education system, or with financial mathematics D.E.A. degrees (Univ. Paris VI, Univ. Paris VII, ParisTech…) in the French education system. Typically, a quantitative analyst will also need extensive skills in computer programming, most commonly C++ and/or Java.

How did hair="complexity" come into Obama's lexicon? Again, pending evidence to the contrary, I'd suspect the general diffusion of engineering slang into the world of political operatives, some of whom have a background in statistical modeling or computer science or whatever. Though I guess there might be enough back-and-forth between Wall Street and high-level politics to allow some terminological flow from M&A jargon into political deal-making.






  1. Andrew Myers said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    Nice post. As a computer scientist, I can verify that "hairy" is certainly a word used to describe (often unnecessary) complexity, or the difficulty of a hard problem. However, my sense is that the term is going out of or has gone out of vogue in CS. Sounds a little too unhygenic!

  2. Dr. Decay said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    Hairy="dangerous" is frequently used in the film Apocalypse Now. I'm too young to have any first hand knowledge of Vietnam war slang, Obama probably converses with military types who do.

    [(myl) The "dangerous" sense of hairy was certainly current in the 1960s, in the U.S. Army as elsewhere in America. But Obama's use doesn't seem primarily to refer to dangers, but rather simply to complexities.]

  3. Howard Oakley said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    I can remember using "hairy" to mean hazardous and potentially scary since the late 1960s, in UK Brit English – it was quite widespread then. I had assumed that it was contracted from 'hair-raising', but am bound to be wrong.

  4. Not Labov said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

    Bill Labov describes complex or tedious tasks as "hairy" fairly often in class

  5. John Roth said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    Yeah, I certainly remember it as being a general descriptor for a difficult problem, although I don't remember it as being restricted to computer science or engineering. If Obama didn't know it before, which I consider doubtful, he could have picked it up from the software development team for the 2012 presidential election.

  6. Brett said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    I'm not sure how much the physics sense is related. In discussions of black hole "hair," people often show schematic figures with a spherical black hole looking like a head, with wavy hair extending out from its event horizon skin. The "hair" literally refers to observables (other than mass, angular momentum, and charge) that are nonzero in the exterior region of the black hole spacetime, so the analogy to hair is apt in a way that it may not be in these other uses.

  7. DaveK said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    Do you think it has any connection to the expression: "So old it has hair on it"?

  8. Rubrick said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

    Sadly it's even less likely that Obama came to the usage via the Hairy Ball Theorem, though the metaphor works pretty well in this context.

  9. Rebecca said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

    Totally a guess, but perhaps Obama was exposed to this usage of "hairy" in behind the scenes discussion of issues over the last few months.

  10. hector said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

    I've guessed that the use of "hairy" to refer to danger comes from the fact that wild animals are covered in hair. In my neck of the woods, when going on a hike there is the very real possibility of running across a bear, which is indeed a "hairy" situation.

  11. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

    From somewhere, long ago, and I have no idea exactly where or when, I got the idea that "hairy" as "dangerous" came from RAF usage during World War II and that it was a contraction of "hair-raising," as Howard Oakley suggests.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    I recall 'hairy' as general slang from the 60s. But, I don't recall ever hearing "hair on it" until this post. My first reaction was that it had gone through a "hairy" process (difficult or dangerous) such that it had residual "hair on it."

  13. Bob Ladd said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    I also recall "hairy" as general slang from the 60s, meaning tricky or complicated or difficult or dangerous. Is there a connection to the phrase "give someone the hairy eyeball"? (That phrase is attested in the original Arlo Guthrie recording of Alice's Restaurant, so dates from the same era.)

  14. D.O. said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

    I find it much more plausible that Mr. Obama picked up a word from manager-speak than from the nerd-speak. And, of course, to have "hair on" X is not the same thing as X being "hairy". One can have egg on one's face, but having an eggy face is something completely different.

    [(myl) The evidence, so far, is that the expression "hair on X" = "X has complex problems" is mergers-and-acquisitions-speak, not manager-speak. And the M&A deal-makers over the past couple of decades have been heavily infiltrated by ex-nerds.

    As for the exercise in morphology -- give me a break. As documented in the post, the back-formation "hair" has been used to mean "inelegant complexity" for at least 50 years by (certain types of?) engineers; given that, it's just normal compositional semantics to use "X has hair on it" to mean that "X has complex problems".]

  15. Sven Sahle said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

    In german the adjective "haarig" seems to have similar meaning. I would understand and use it for "difficult" or "problematic". For me it has no association to hacker or computer slang. According to the 19th century Grimm's Dictionary (online version), students used it to describe strong or capable persons, or as a modifier to other adjectives like "heavily" or "strongly".
    Both Grimm's dictionary and the DWDS (Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache) claim rather vaguely that this meaning comes from an historic association of having long hair with strongness.

  16. KeithB said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 6:03 pm

    My Devil's DP Dictionary of 1981 (Kelly-Bootle) has
    hair: The subsumed substance that makes problems, programs and devices hairy.

    hairy: 1. (Of a program or system) unduly complex, overly convoluted, beyond fathomage, trichomatic.

  17. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    I suppose it's unlikely that Obama would have picked it up from Dennis Eckersley.

  18. Xmun said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 6:29 pm

    Thanks for the quotation from Clough, but note that "breaches" (four lines below the bracketed ellipses) should read "breeches". I have checked the original, if you can call a 1920 reprint of Clough's Poetical Works by that name.

    [(myl) I wondered about that, but "breaches" is what the Google Books edition gives in its textual form. Very likely an OCR error. Anyhow I'll substitute "breeches".]

  19. D.O. said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

    @myl. First, thank you for your reply to my comment. I have no opinion about were M&A types got the "hair on it" expression from, but the question was were Mr. Obama got it. As for the compositional semantics, it 1) does not always work this way with metaphorical expressions, 2) 50 years worth of hair as a metaphor for complexity seems to be always in adjectival form, and 3) my little pocking around with Google brought up exactly nothing except this, which does not seem to be limited to M&A, but more like general business talk. BUT on compositional semantics point I just defer. Thanks again for the reply.

    [(myl) With respect to the "metaphorical expressions" issue, if a noun N has a metaphorical or figurative meaning M, then N can generally be used in all sorts of compositional combinations with verbs and prepositions to mean M. For example, "shit" can be used in a metaphorical or figurative sense to mean "unpleasant or deprecated material or experience(s)", and as a result, it's possible to talk about "not putting up with this shit any more", or "a lot of shit is coming our way", or "there's a lot of shit on the agenda", or "this topic is connected to a lot of bad shit", or etc. Consider the uses of other figurative noun senses ("dirt", "star", "juice", etc.) -- they all combine pretty freely with adjectives, verbs, prepositions, etc.) I don't think there are any exceptions to this.

    With respect to the claim that "hair as a metaphor for complexity seems to be always in adjectival form", did you read the original post, which cited the entry for "hair" in the Jargon File, referring to an early-1960s programming language ("Decoding TECO commands requires a certain amount of hair")? Or the many physics quotes starting in 1973?]

  20. Ron said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

    I first heard the expression "hair on it" many years ago when I was in the M&A world. Two observations:

    1. At the time deal people were the worst Anglophiles and I think everyone believed the term was British in origin. This was around the same time investment banks and law firms established "league tables" ranking the volume of their deals. Please. In any case, I never had the sense that it was "tech speak".

    2. I believe people used the term to mean "problematic" rather than merely "complex". A deal had hair on it if there was something that would make it hard to sell, not just hard to figure out. This isn't necessarily inconsistent with the President's usage, but I wonder if anyone else thinks of "hair on it" as having a greater negative valence than its origins in physics would suggest.

    [(myl) Interesting. This suggests that maybe there was an independent derivation in that subculture after all. When you say "many years ago", what time period do you mean more precisely?]

  21. Ron said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

    1980s. We wore suspenders but called them "braces". It was the decade irony forgot.

  22. Cygil said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

    I second the "Hairy Ball Theorem" origin — at least that would make the most sense out of it. Hairy balls are impossible to comb — there will always be at least one tuft that sticks out awkwardly. In the same way, hairy policies are impossible to make neat — there will be at least one awkward problem sticking out.

  23. D.O. said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

    Physics quotes do not seem to mean complexity, messiness, or potential troubles. It more or less means that a black hole is like a neat and slippery ball — nothing to catch to pull on. Sort of Kantian "thing in itself" (but we learned that it is not quite right). It's doubtful that it is formed from programmer's usage. Physicists would rather prefer that black holes had some hair on them. And theoretical physicists do know what the Hairy Ball theorem is.

    I did miss the Jargon file entry. Still, the dearth of "hair on it" expressions in Google Books (if you exclude the Bible and criminology) seems suggestive.

  24. MikeA said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

    I recall one (mostly) literal C.S. sense of "hairy". In the mid 1970s a friend from IBM Almaden Research opined that computers of the future would be "hairy smoking golfballs", in the sense that the drive to great speed would require smaller size, and power dissipation in a small volume would make them hot, while getting information in and out would require lots of very small cables (hair). But well before then "hair" meant "difficulty, mainly due to complexity", IIRC.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 12:02 am

    I agree that the examples about black holes don't refer to complexity, but I don't see that "hair" as something you can grab, either. Hair is just a property an object can have in addition to mass, charge, and angular momentum, and black holes don't have any such properties. I can imagine that Wheeler thought of it because hair color, distribution, and cut are important identifying characteristics for people, but black holes don't have such identifying characteristics.

    [(myl) From Misner et al. 1973 (shown in the original post): "the black hole can have no 'hair' (no other independent characteristics)". Other macroscopic physical objects have MANY independent characteristics, billions of billions of them. You couldn't ask for a more exact equivalence between "hair" and (informational) "complexity". Or from Alford and March-Russell 1990

    In our opinion this is a significant correction to the famous no hair theorem, according to which the only observables connected with black holes are those associated with long-ranged gauge interactions. Although that theorem is correct classically, in the quantum theory black holes can be quite hairy.

    Or there's Hawking's famous work on "Information Loss in Black Holes", which explicitly states the interpretation of "hair" as "information":

    The black hole information paradox started in 1967 when Werner Israel showed that the Schwarzschild metric was the only static vacuum black hole solution [1]. This was then generalized to the no hair theorem; the only stationary rotating black hole solutions of the Einstein-Maxwell equations are the Kerr-Newman metrics [2]. The no hair theorem implied that all information about the collapsing body was lost from the outside region apart from three conserved quantities: the mass, the angular momentum, and the electric charge.

    It seems obvious that for the people writing about this issue, "hair" is a term for all the information about (the contents of) a black hole, other than the three simple quantities of mass, angular momentum, and electric charge. Another ordinary-language term for that additional information might be "complexity", though that word has other implications these days for physicists. But please remember that the point here is not how to word the gloss, but whether the physicists' usage might be connected to Obama's observation that e.g. marijuana legalization is a not a simple issue with just a few parameters, where outcomes are easy to predict.]

    I think the hairy-ball theorem is a complete red hairing (sorry). The complexity of a "hairy" problem is far beyond the fact that a tangent vector field on a sphere has to have a zero, which isn't really a tuft. I don't see either theorem as related to "hairy" or "having hair on it" meaning difficult, problematic, complicated.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    To make the problem hairier, here is a usage from the '80s world of mergers: "That particular rumor 'had no hair on it,' as they say." I can't see anything before it.

  27. Mark Meckes said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 3:37 am

    You (and Google Books) missed Misner and Wheeler's coauthor, Kip Thorne.

    [(myl) Sorry -- fixed now.]

  28. Rodger C said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    Am I the only one reading this thread who keeps thinking of Alan Bennett?

  29. Brett said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    I want to emphasize that the hair metaphor with black holes is particularly vivid, because it refers to the "complexity" specifically of the black hole exterior (outside the event horizon), like hair extending out from a head. Hawking specifically mentions the information disappearing from the outside region, but the quoted passage does not specifically point out that all the complexity remains on the inside. The reason is that while the exterior spacetime should approach a steady-state solution (which must be of the Kerr-Newman form), the interior region never reaches a steady state, and so it can be quite complex. (This is all classical. Hawking was originally arguing that all the complexity on the inside disappears as well, as the black hole emits quantum-mechanical Hawking radiation; however, this now appears not to be the case.)

  30. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 11:59 am

    In the USAF back in the 50s and 60s, bringing up an awkward topic at a meeting was called "coughing up a hairball."

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    I have had (via practicing law in NYC for the last 20 years) a reasonable amount of contact with post-Eighties M&A-world jargon, and oddly enough Ron's account strikes me on one hand as perfectly plausible but OTOH I can't specifically summon up a memory of an actual in-the-wild usage of it. I can separately vouch for the more general notion that some US business subcultures are, if not "Anglophile" in the sense of that being a moral failing, at least structured such that their jargon contains Briticisms not otherwise common in AmEng (e.g., the reinsurance world, which at least historically was a fairly distinct set of people and personalities than the M&A world). But knowing that the door was open to Briticisms in that subculture doesn't establish that this usage originated that way, at least absent more evidence of British usage a decade or so earlier.

    Via poking around google books for 1980's usages, I learn that "hair on it" was a vulgar/taboo expression as used in traditional Tlingit folk narratives (published in English translation in '87), such that the narrator had to follow up with some approximate equivalent to "pardon my French." But since we have a Hawaiian president rather than an Alaskan one, that's probably a red herring here.

  32. John said,

    January 21, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

    Doesn't Obama's first usage suggest messiness rather than complexity?

    "some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody"

    I hadn't heard the expression before (though "hairy" as "complicated" is very familiar), but it struck me as a reference to the unpleasant presence of a hair in one's food, vel sim. So if something has some hair on it, then it's not entirely palatable. That's likely a result of complexity, but not the complexity itself.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    MYL: I agree that it's obvious that for physicists "'hair' is a term for all the information about (the contents of) a black hole, other than the three simple quantities [...]" and I think that's entirely consistent with what I wrote. Also, the other uses of "hair(y)" under discussion have nothing to do with accessible or inaccessible information. It seems to me that therefore the question of whether the physics use is related to the President's use has to do with why "hair" is a good term for that, and that's why I was talking about how I understand that metaphor—though I missed some resemblances to hair that you and Brett brought up.

    I agree with John that Obama's use of "hair" earlier in the article is esthetic, though I see it as more as smooth skin than food. Either way, it's something unpleasant that you find if you look into the facts about how positive changes were made, such as the bribery needed to outlaw slavery, as depicted in Lincoln.

    In the later one, I don't see that Obama is just saying "marijuana legalization is not a simple issue with just a few parameters, where outcomes are easy to predict." He's talking about overstated advantages and unstated disadvantages, but the physics use doesn't involve advantages and disadvantages. Also he's making a prediction himself, at least a general one that the experiment is going to be a challenge, and he may have specific predictions in mind such as the possibility of slippery-slope arguments for legalizing harder drugs, though I really tell. So I think the similarities with the physics use are partial.

    On the other hand, you pointed out that the Jargon File defines "hair" as a noun in the sense of annoying complications. This strikes me as much closer to Obama's use in regard to marijuana. So I see a line from hackish to Obama, maybe through finance, with black holes as a side branch at most.

    By the way, here's a legal-financial "hairy" meaning "complicated and unclear" from 1966: "This gets into a very hairy situation about even whether the forces can afford to require full insurance in this area or whether it is better to pay claims." (Hearings Before and Special Reports Made by Committee on Armed Services of the House of Representatives on Subjects Affecting the Naval and Military Establishments.)

    (ObLLog: That "even" reminds me of "What does that even mean?")

  34. Ross Presser said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

    Your link for "hairy" in this post

    adjectival form hairy, the OED traces a version of this usage

    actually links to TECO on Wikipedia. Was that deliberate?

  35. Sandra Delehanty said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 12:29 am

    In the 1960s it was very common slang in Michigan to say, "Don't make such a big hairy deal out of it!," much in the same way young people say, "Chill out!" today. We would often refer to teachers, parents or any authority figure as making big hairy deals out of little things (rules, curfew, etc.) I don't recall ever hearing Obama's specific usage but I think I will put it in practice.

  36. Anna Vernerova said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 7:20 pm

    My understanding of the Obama quotes was that a hair refers to some minor and possibly quite irrevelant flaw that is readily picked up by fussy people.

    This is because my native language is Czech and the Czech phrase "to find/see a hair on something" means exactly that: to be picking fault with something, e.g. "She sees hairs on everything and does not praise anything."

    The phrase can also be used to express what kind of quality someone sees in something: "I am happy that you found a good hair on the book." or "Of course you can't find a hair of anything new on their music." Of course, if you find a good hair on something, you do not find very much that is good about it, which makes sense in the light of other phrases that refer to something very small, such as "by a hair's breadth" or "to a hair".

    What I find striking is that in Czech, a hair (in this rather rare sense) refers to something rather trivial, while in English, it refers to something quite complex.

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