When I was writing “Smells Kind of Fish-y,” and characterizing Stanley Fish as “hare-brained,” I had to look up the word harebrained, because I don’t really know it. If “knowing” is to have the capacity to use a term to create meaning, then I, in this sense did not know “harebrained.” It was not because I had never used the term “harebrained,” and not that I had never looked up the term. In fact, I had. But it was so recently, and so few times, that the meaning hadn’t really sunken in.
I reflected on the fact that I have never fully understood or employed the term “harebrained.” The fact is that to this day I have been confused: is it “hair” brained (as in a brain full of hair, and therefore little brain matter?) or “hare” brained? The latter would make no sense to me…but why?
Why? Because this is the image of a Hare that I grew up with:
Now, it would be nice if I had a larger image, but this will work. That is a hare, specifically Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit is cunning, Brer Rabbit is smart, Brer Rabbit outfoxes his predators, and Brer Rabbit protects his family. In this publication and related ones in the same series he is given to smoking, sitting at a dinner table in a chair, and wearing overalls and suspenders. He is a hare. “Hare” or “hair” -brained people are supposed to be lacking in cognitive abilities right? Sort of irrational right? Well, here is a hare who cares for his family, models correct dinner table manners for the youth, and wears snappy outfits. Now, given these realities I find it perfectly reasonable that a woman with a year of post-graduate study under her belt and more in process would be confused over the odd and colloquial term, “harebrained.” Based on my observations of Brer Rabbit, and my observations of “hare” or “hair” -brained individuals, I deduced that the term “harebrained” for dense individuals couldn’t possibly be correct! You must mean HAIRbrained! As in a brain the size and thickness of a shaft of HAIR!
Brer Rabbit comes down to us through West Africa, the Gullah, Black slaves, the white man Joel Chandler Harris who published his stories into a book, and the Disney studio, who in 1946 made the stories into a motion picture called Song of the South. The different tellings and different tellers have all added layers to this melting pot of a story, and I do mean melting. Because these days, our image of Brer Rabbit is not dictated by one or the other, but is rather a creolization, a cycle of imitation, reflection, and reiteration. Now, I was about to say, as dictionary.com says, that “harebrained” is to be giddy or reckless, and that Brer Rabbit is neither of those things. But, perhaps in the imaginations of the youth more exposed to cartoons than Joel Chandler Harris, Brer Rabbit is a fool, though he was never one to me. But I digress. To clear things up I felt the need to go beyond the internet crutch that is dictionary.com and Google the term. [I know, you’re thinking, well what did that take, an entire click of the tab key?]. But I did, and I was enlightened. For “Bartleby,” [like the Scrivner? I love Melville] the online version of the American Heritage Dictionary, lays it all out for us.
Their definition is “foolish; flighty,” which is consistent with dictionary.com BUT interestingly enough, ADH provides some historical context:
It appears that the term hair/hare -brained PRE-dates our furry friend of the middle passage. According to AHD, my Scottish ancestors, who immigrated to the New World in the 17th century, were still using the spelling “hairbrained” well into the 18th century! AND they may have believed that the word means “having a hair-sized brain!!!”
I am vindicated of my ignorance. Saddleshoos triumphs again! [Draft version…Saddleshoos to explore European/white/Scottish ancestry, intersection with African cultures, creolization, narrative, etc. to follow on a non-school night]
Please investigate the Gullah, Joel Chandler Harris, the book called Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, Jump! the album by Van Dyke Parks, and the illustrations of Barry Moser.
One response to “Hare or Hair -Brained?”
What a great entry! Plse. continue your research on a non-school night!