It’s not every evening I get to perform Google searches for “women’s hair accessories”—usually just Saturday evenings when the wife is out. But this past weekend, I had genuine, research-based motivation for doing so: it occurred to me that there is an oddly high number of hair terminological differences between Britain and America.
And if that wasn’t enough, my research brought up an even more bizarre phenomenon: in virtually every case, the American equivalent of a British hairstyle term seemed to begin with the letter “b”. U.S. government officials have so far refused to comment.
For instance, though, the word fringe—the preferred term in Britain to describe hair that is styled vertically over the forehead (à la Bettie Paige)—is known in the U.S. as bangs. It is believed that the latter term derives from the act of cutting a horse’s tail straight across horizontally. This act is known as “bang-tail.”
And then there is the word braid, the act of interlacing three or more handfuls of vertically hanging hair. The word is used in either country, of course, but there is an equivalent used in Britain that appears to be antiquated in America: plait. Furthermore, it appears that references to the latter may produce different pronunciations on either side of the Pond.
And what about hair accessories? Well there are two such accessories for which there is more than one word in Britain and typically just one in American English.
The first of these is what the British interchangeably call a Kirby Grip (derived from the trademark Kirbigrip) or, quite simply, a hair grip. To me, these will always been known as those metal hairpin things my wife leaves on the bathroom floor; but to Americans, they’re known as bobby pins. Yet another phrase, you’ll notice, beginning with “b” and one that originated in the 1930s to accompany what is known to both Brits and Americans as a “bob haircut.”
The second is a somewhat similar accessory to the hair grip/bobby pin in that it is a small, plastic clasp designed to hold hair in place. The British have numerous terms for this, not least of which is clasp itself. Others include hair clip or hair slide. As I’ve already hinted at, however, American society would completely grind to a halt if it were to incorporate these non-b-words into its vernacular. And so, the word barrette is used here to describe this accessory (not to be confused with a “beret”—the type of hat made fashionable by Saddam Hussein and one that, curiously, Brits and Americans pronounce differently).
Occasionally, of course, there is one exception that both proves and utterly ruins the rule. In this case it is the distinctly non-b-word headband. While headband (or head band)—an accessory for keeping hair out of the face and eyes—is used by Brits and Americans alike, the British also use the term Alice band, inspired by the questionable fashion choices of Alice in Through The Looking-Glass. The term, unlike the book, doesn’t appear to have translated into American English.
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