meaning and origin of the phrase ‘keep your hair on’

 

The Battle of the Cataplasm (1799) by James Bretherton and Henry William Bunbury

Susannah, rowing one way & looking another, set fire to Dr. Slop’s Wig, which being somewhat bushy & unctuous withal was as soon burnt as kindled – You impudent Whore cried Slop (for what is passion but a wild Beast) You impudent Whore cried Slop getting upright with the Cataplasm in his hand – I never was at the destruction of any body’s nose said Susannah, which is more than you can say; – Is it? cried Slop, throwing the Cataplasm in her face – Yes it is cried Susannah returning the Complement with what was left in the pan.

The Battle of the Cataplasm (London, 3rd February 1799), by James Bretherton (circa 1730-1806) and Henry William Bunbury (1750-1811) — inspired by The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), by the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-68) — image: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

 

The phrase keep your hair on means stay calm or be patient—cf. the synonymous keep your shirt on.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from The Entr’acte (London) of 16th August 1873, which mentioned that at the Winchester, a London music hall, an artist named Ted Callingham sang

“Roving Joe” and “Keep Your Hair On”—two very laughable comic songs.

The second-earliest instance if from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London) of 4th January 1874, which reported that, during an investigation “into the circumstances attending the death of James Farrell”,

James Desmond, 24, Star-street, Wapping, a labourer, deposed that about 8 o’clock on the night in question he met the deceased […]. At the corner of Jubilee-street they got into a disturbance with three strange men, who grossly insulted them. The deceased then went up and asked them whom they were talking to, to which they replied, “Keep your hair on, old boy.”

It is generally said that the phrase is based on the image of pulling one’s hair out in exasperation, anger or frustration.

However, in a letter written from Gloucester, published in Notes and Queries (London) of 12th July 1902, a certain H. Y. J. Taylor suggested that the phrase originally referred to pulling off one’s wig:

This expression is common or is frequently heard in Gloucestershire. Its origin is supposed to be coeval with wigs or the wig period. Irascible and aged gentlemen, “when mad with passion,” have been known not only to curse and swear, but to tear their wigs from their heads, and to trample them under their feet, or to throw them into the fire. Very often when I have manifested symptoms of anger I have been admonished by country fellows, “Kip thee yar on, maystur!” This expression is synonymous with keep your temper, or don’t get into a rage. Whenever I have heard the expression, I have invariably associated it with the old country squire who got into a thundering rage and threw his wig off his bald head and trampled it under his feet. Sometimes a similar expression or mandate is used, “Kip the wig on, ould mon.” I have frequently heard old country farmers and farm labourers say, “Daz my wig!” or “Dash my wig if I wool,” or “I dooes.” In the old days, if a man wished in his passion to be emphatic, he threw off his wig.

In this case, the phrase would be comparable to wigs on the green, a colloquial expression, originally Irish, for coming to blows or sharp altercation, wigs being liable to fall or be pulled off in a fray. The earliest instance that I have found is from Saunders’s News-Letter, and Daily Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland) of 3rd March 1820:

Extract of a Letter from Athlone, March 1.
“This Town for the last week has presented a scene that I do not recollect to have been equalled at any period during the war: the continual passage of troops, of all arms, two or three different descriptions of a day—their baggage, billetings, trumpetings, and drummings, “give dreadful note of preparation.” The enemy, however, does not seem in the least intimidated by it; they have appeared in formidable numbers almost every night, and each night in a different place; they have taken all the arms in this and the County of Roscommon, from gentle and simple, and throughout a great part of the County of Galway—hitherto the Leinster side of the Shannon had been remarkably quiet, but the flame is spreading fast, and they opened the campaign in Westmeath last night, by robbing arms, from several houses, and one within a mile of this Town, near Mr. Bruces!
As to your “Peelers*,” they may do upon common occasions, but they are laughed at now by both sides; in short, it is ridiculous to suppose any thing less than a rigid enforcement of the Insurrection Act, can ever be attended with effect.
“You may expect to hear of ‘wigs on the green,’ in this neighbourhood, ere long, unless the discovery in London may damp their ardour.”

(* peeler: a member of the Irish constabulary, from the name of the British statesman Robert Peel (1788-1850), who as Home Secretary founded this police force)

The phrase keep your hair on was already well established in 1880, since on 29th October The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (Devon) gave the following mock etymology:

No More on that Head.—It is said that just now the French hair harvest is in full swing, and that tons of fair hair are being sent from all parts of Europe and America. This being the case, it is significant that recently a man applied to Mr. Paget, the magistrate, for a summons against the mistress of his little girl, who had cut off the child’s hair without her consent. Of course, his Worship was bound to admit it was com(b)ing it a little too strong considering it has a market value, which fact, perhaps, accounts for the expression so common with boys—“Keep your hair on.”

 

The American author Edward Zane Carroll Judson (circa 1821-1886), writing under the pen name of Ned Buntline, used keep your hair on with reference to being scalped in his novel Buffalo Bill, and his Adventures in the West (New York, 1886):

“So, good-by, dad—keep your hair on as long as you can, and if you have to lose it, be gritty while it is going.”

There are several allusions to scalping in the novel; for example, Buffalo Bill says, about “the red men”:

“I believe the best way is to find out what kind of a humor they’re in, and whether they’re mad enough to try for our hair again or not.”

In Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (1893), John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley recorded the following American-English expressions:

To raise (or lifthair. To scalp; hence, idiomatically, to defeat; to kill. To keep one’s hair = to escape a danger.

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