Mr. Horn's bad-hair day query

Kathleen Miller millerk at NYTIMES.COM
Mon Jan 24 20:41:57 UTC 2000

ON LANGUAGE; Spectacular Hair Day
By William Safire July 11, 1993

"In the old days, newspapers were fairly straightforward about their
weather predictions: "Tomorrow: cloudy, likelihood of thundershowers in
late afternoon" was typical, or "Tomorrow: mostly sunny, hot and humid." In
the heat of competition from handsome, giggling weather casters on
television, however -- with their "Boyoboy, is tomorrow gonna be a
scorcher!" and "Get out those galoshes, Charlie and Joan, it'll be pouring
down cats and dogs" -- the too-dignified print medium has had to enliven
its prose.

Here is a recent forecast in the upper right hand corner of the front page
of The New York Times: "Tomorrow, sunny, spectacular."

We all know what kind of weather spectacular is: two degrees lower than,
and one wispy cloud short of, glorious. This sprightly editorialization of
the weather news will surely lead to "Tomorrow, unseasonably cold,
bone-chilling," perhaps all the way to "Tomorrow, overcast, drizzly,

One kind of day that everyone dreads, however, has something to do with the
humidity and the wind speed: it is the widely known and feared bad hair
day. "For the past year or two," writes David A. Florman of Bayside,
Queens, "the expression bad hair day has been used by my teen-age daughter
and her friends. This week I noticed the expression on the cover of
Glamour. Where was this first used?"

Here's my theory of the origin. Irritated with his coverage by Us magazine,
the comedian Garry Shandling (who used to begin his routine with "Is my
hair all right?") told The Seattle Times in January 1991: "I was at a
celebrity screening of 'Misery' and they made up a quote for me. They said
I told them I was having a bad hair day. They didn't even talk to me!"

Us was doing Mr. Shandling a big favor, if his claim of misquotation is
true: that was the first Nexis citation of a phrase that is upsweeping the

"There are good-hair days," wrote Margo Kaufman in The Los Angeles Times a
month later, "when every curl bounces into place unbidden and I feel as if
I can conquer the world. And there are bad-hair days, when each tress
becomes possessed and I feel powerless and out of control."

A month later, it appeared in The Toronto Star: "Did Robert De Niro get
caught in a crosswind or was he just having a bad hair day?" The following
year, Mary Ann Hogan of The Los Angeles Times quoted Richard Denaro, a
hairstylist: "Bad hair is like the 'check engine' light going off in your
car. It's a sign that tells you: Do not proceed. You should just go back to

The phrase crossed over from the style page to the front page with
President Clinton's famous $200 haircut. "Bad hair day for Codename Elvis"
was Brandweek's lead; Jill Dougherty of CNN repeated The Washington Post's
headline about "Hair Force One" and added, "Back at the White House, it was
a bad hair day."

Since the phrase bad hair is being used as a compound adjective modifying
day, it should have a hyphen, but in almost all the citations does not, and
we might as well accept the mistake as idiomatic. Because it has lasted
longer than the usual nonce expression, it deserves definition:
specifically, "time when humidity leads to terminal frizzies or wind ruins
a careful coiffure," but more profoundly, "a sense of frustration at a time
when one seems to lose control of the ordinarily manageable details of life."

Cheer up, badhairdaytimers: after the wind and the mugginess muss up and
depress us, the clouds roll by and the hairdo of our mind-set becomes
nothing short of spectacular."

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