“I know this may sound odd. I was telling someone about something that was harebrained; then I wondered where that expression came from and if it is spelled harebrained or hairbrained?” The Newton Falls Public Library staff enjoys answering questions and finds ones about words and language to be intriguing.
According to A Dictionary of American Idioms by Adam Makkai, M.T. Boatner, and J.E. Gates, this thoughtless and foolish meaning word is spelled harebrained. Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner refers those looking under hairbrained to see harebrained; “hairbrained is the common blunder. The misspelling falls just short of being what it attempts to denote” [p. 398].
While we know the spelling, that still doesn’t explain where the expression came from. It seemed logical to try A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, but it only had three hare words – hare, hare fly and hare-lip sucker (a species of sucker). The thirteen volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary was the resource we should have checked first. There it states that harebrayne was used in a book written in 1550 and denoted someone who had “a brain like a hare’s, or no more brain than a hare; a giddy or reckless person” [v. 5, p. 91]. Around the turn of the 16th century the spelling seems to have changed to harebrain. The website World Wide Words [www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-hai1.htm] also discusses the question of the use ‘hare’ vs. ‘hair’ over the centuries. The author, Michael Quinion ultimately recommends going with harebrained.
Out of curiosity, the staff used a search engine to see how harebrain(ed) appears online. In Minnesota there is a company named Harebrain Inc. which developed an acoustical voice-feedback headset called WhisperPhone. On MySpace.com there is a music group from Oregon,
Ky & HareBrain Media. Master Shortrod Harebrain, a jealous husband, is a character in A Mad World, My Masters, a Jacobean stage play written by Thomas Middleton. This “comedy first performed around 1605 and first published in 1608. (The title is proverbial, and was used by a pamphleteer, Nicholas Breton, in 1603)” [http://www.wikipedia.com/]. You can contact Dave Carter, Founder of Harebrained Schemes, LLC. at www.harebrained.com. Harebrained Films, Holidays, and Shop at Etsy can be found on the Internet as well as harebrained tax schemes at www.irs.gov.