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I found the word, “harebrain” used as a verb in passive form in the following paragraph of today’s New York Times’ editorial titled “How not to plan for future”.

The agreement between Congress and the White House to virtually eliminate money for high-speed rail is harebrained. France, China, Brazil, even Russia, understand that high-speed rail is central to future development. Not Washington.

As I was totally unfamiliar with the word harebrain, I checked online dictionaries, and found the following list of the synonyms of this word in Define.com dictionary:

birdbrain, crackbrain, crank, cuckoo, ding-a-ling, featherbrain, featherhead, flibbertigibbet, giddybrain, giddyhead, kook, lunatic, nut, rattlebrain, rattlehead, and so on.

Then here’s my question, what is the exact meaning of “money for high-speed rail is harebrained”? Is harebrain used as a verb in passive form or an adjective in the above text? Is it common to use this word, which I thought to be a noun, in this way?

Incidentally, we have a phrase “a person with the brain in a match box size” as a Japanese counterpart to “harebrain,” which was actually applied to one of our former Prime ministers.

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English has a wide variety of words for somebody being stupid - almost all of them have been applied to Prime Ministers. –  mgb Apr 21 '11 at 23:03
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@Martin: If I may side with the anti-passive-voice zealots for once, that statement is perhaps even truer with the word “been” removed :-) –  PLL Apr 21 '11 at 23:45
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Note that the extracted quote: “money for high-speed rail is harebrained” is the opposite of the sense meant in the diary, to wit: "to...*eliminate* money for high-speed rail is harebrained." –  The Raven Apr 22 '11 at 0:35
    
@Yoichi Oishi I corrected something in your post that I thought you appreciate some enlightenment on why I did it. You wrote "[hairbrain]...which is thought to be a noun", and I changed it to "[hairbrain]...which I thought to be a noun." If you write, "is thought", you are implying that everyone thinks that hairbrain cannot be verbed; obviously native American-English speakers should know that hairbrain can be made into a verb. I think you meant to talk about your personal knowledge, which would require an "I thought." –  Uticensis Apr 22 '11 at 2:06
    
@Billare: I agree with your point about “…is thought…” versus “…I thought…”, but I don’t think “native American-English speakers should know that harebrain can be made into a verb”. Native speakers would mostly deny that harebrain is a word at all, I’m fairly sure. Usage data supports that, but with an interesting twist: while harebrained is highly dominant now, harebrain, hairbrained, hairbrain were all commoner in the past. –  PLL Apr 22 '11 at 3:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Harebrained is more often written as hare-brained, which makes it clearer that it doesn’t come from a root *harebrain, but is analogous to compounds like red-haired, duck-billed, flat-topped and so on.

So, it’s describing what kind of brain someone has: the brain of a hare, a proverbially daft, silly, jumpy animal. Or, by extension, it describes something that a hare-brained person might think up, or do, or support. A more common approximate synonym would be idiotic.

Hare-brained scheme in particular has become almost a cliché. Your example is very similar: “The agreement […] is hare-brained,” is saying it’s a stupid, idiotic idea.

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It's an adjective, modifying "agreement." More commonly, though, it's used in a phrase such as "a harebrained idea."

The meaning, as you've probably gathered from that list of synonyms, is something like "ridiculous" or "nonsensical." So the editorialist is saying that it's a dumb idea.

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The reason is that hares (ie turbocharged Rabbits) run around in the spring mating season, fighting with each other and generally behaving in an undignified manner.

So "mad as a march hare", "haring around", "harebrained" all mean something like frivolous, un-focussed, scatterbrained etc rather than directly stupid.

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Thank you. I didn’t know that hare can be used as a verb. Seeing your answer, I checked Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and found it has the meaning of ‘to run or go somewhere very fast,’ as you mentioned. I also found the idiom ‘mad as a March hare’ you just taught me, and ‘make a hare of,’ ‘start a hare,’ and ‘hold with the hare and run with the hounds’ in an English Japanese dictionary at hand. It was an intriguing discovery. –  Yoichi Oishi Apr 22 '11 at 20:35
    
I didn't know how familiar you were with hares –  mgb Apr 22 '11 at 20:39

Harebrained is an adjective, often describing ideas/schemes/plans that are at least slightly, if not completely, crazy.

I've never heard of the word "harebrain", whether a verb or something else.

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I agree with PLL et al., but I think part of your question is really about confusion regarding the part of speech, which I don't see addressed or named here elsewhere.

Is harebrain used as a verb in passive form or an adjective in the above text? Is it common to use this word, which I thought to be a noun, in this way?

In the cited text, "harebrained" has the appearance of a past participle, which is a verb form used as an adjective, as in "a frightened monkey" (where "frighten" is ordinarily a basic verb); however, I believe in this instance it is a simple adjective, and not a participle. Rephrased, the cited text might read, "...a harebrained agreement". For the word "harebrained", I believe this is typical usage, per PLL's comments.

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I agree. One might say "he is hare-brained" but never "he has harebrained". –  TomH Jul 22 '11 at 19:58

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