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Yesterday’s (September8) New York Times carried an article titled ‘Setting Their Hair on Fire’ which was written by economist, Paul Krugman. It is followed by the following sentence:

“First things first: I was favorably surprised by the new Obama jobs plan, which is significantly bolder and better than I expected. It’s not nearly as bold as the plan I’d want in an ideal world. But if it actually became law, it would probably make a significant dent in unemployment.”

As ‘Set one’s hair on fire’ was unfamiliar expression to me, I searched on Google and found the following post on www.phrases. org:

HAIR ON FIRE - ".That odd phrase - believed to have originated among Navy aviators, intended to convey a sense of hair-raising urgency - quickly became the phrase of the day as this week's hearings began before the commission investigating events that led to 9/11...(Donald) Rumsfeld used it, saying such alarm wasn't uncommon: '...

From the above definition, I understand ‘Set one’s hair on fire’ means ‘a matter of emergency.' Am I right? The expression reminds me of Japanese popular saying, ‘焦眉の急 -urgency of scorching your eyebrows,’ to describe the urgent need.

Since Phrase Finder says ‘it’s odd phrase,’ I wonder how commonly ‘Set one’s hair on fire’ is used. Is it easily understood and widely spoken by both British and Americans today?

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@Thursagen. Thank you for your input. The Ngram chart gave me understanding of the ’currency level’ of ‘set one’s hair on fire’ vs. ‘’hair on fire’ at a glance. According to www.phrase.org.uk, ‘hair on fire’ means hair-raising urgency, which is very similar to Japanese version,‘焦眉の急’meaning ‘eyebrows-scorching urgency.’ I’m puzzled why Krugman chose such ‘uncommon’ phrase, therefore may not be necessarily clear to every NYT reader even they are highly intellectual as the headline of his article. –  Yoichi Oishi Sep 10 '11 at 23:10

4 Answers 4

It's not at all common, nor would I necessarily believe it has origins in aviation slang.

Possibly because it's not common, it doesn't have a very fixed meaning either. Most often it's used in the sense that something sets your hair on fire if it's exciting (rather than requires urgent action). Less commonly, it's something you might do to attract attention, or simply a stereotypical example of something you really don't want to do

I think this expression would have died out completely, if it weren't for resonance with the much more common set the world on fire. Like that one, it's likely to be used in the negative (something that doesn't set your hair on fire is not very interesting).

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Coming late to the table, yes, but I doubt it has the same resonance as setting the world on fire. It indicates a very large sense of urgency. Imagine, FumbleFingers if your hair suddenly caught fire. Would you not be suddenly in a state of absolutely immediate urgency? Apologies if you're bald, but imagine you had hair. That were on fire. –  Cyberherbalist Sep 12 '13 at 21:05
    
@Cyberherbalist: The point is, set the world on fire has a reasonably consistent meaning (do something that creates a lot of interest/excitement - usually, and makes you famous). But as my three links show, set your hair on fire can refer to 1:) doing something that's exciting for you personally; 2:) grabbing the attention of others by doing something unusual; 3:) doing something unpleasant. Semantically, it's a lot more fluid - probably because it's not used sufficiently often to have one universally-understood meaning. –  FumbleFingers Sep 12 '13 at 21:21
    
I'm sure you're correct. I've heard this phrase often enough, but I've never had cause to use it myself. If somebody sets my hair on fire, they will definitely regret it, though! This place has only been around for a couple of years, how the heck did you get 63K+ reputation already? Are you here 24 hours a day or something? I didn't think there were enough questions for that. Heaven knows I see you everywhere here. I just did a calculation: 36,000 rep in 720 days means an average of 87.5 per day. Wow. –  Cyberherbalist Sep 12 '13 at 21:27
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@Cyberherbalist: I'm not exactly 24/7, but yes - I got to 63K mainly by virtue of how often I've answered, rather than how much I know about the subtleties of English. I don't get out much these days, and I'm always passing by my house computer. I usually knock out another answer every time I'm waiting for my cup of tea to brew, for example. Many a mickle makes a muckle, as they say (apart from those ignorami who say "Many a little makes a muckle" :) –  FumbleFingers Sep 12 '13 at 21:56
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Well, keep it up, maybe one of these days you will be reckoned the @JonSkeet of this SE. If you're not qualitatively to that point already! –  Cyberherbalist Sep 12 '13 at 22:03

Is this a popular English Idiom, easily understood by British and American people? probably not. It's definitely not common usage. I've never heard it before. But maybe that's me. So, to confirm my suspicions, I looked up Google Ngrams, and came up with:

enter image description here

"Set your hair on fire" can be seen as the green line, and that it's been used a little bit only. Not really popular.

What about "hair on fire?". The statistics shown on Google Ngrams show that it seems to be used quite a lot. But we must keep in mind that as Ngrams are searching books, fiction books could relate to incidents in the story where characters had their hair caught on fire. Still, I suppose there wouldn't be so many hair-burning stories.

So, "set one's hair on fire" is definitely not a popular usage idiom, but "hair on fire" is more common (although still not as popular as something like "my cup of tea"), and seems to be gaining in popularity.

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Thank you for your input. The Ngram chart gave me understanding of the ’currency level’ of ‘set one’s hair on fire’ vs. ‘’hair on fire’ at a glance. According to www.phrase.org.uk, ‘hair on fire’ means hair-raising urgency, which is very similar to Japanese version,‘焦眉の急’meaning ‘eyebrows-scorching urgency.’ However, I’m puzzled why Krugman chose such ‘uncommon’ phrase, therefore may not be necessarily clear to every NYT reader even they are highly intellectual as the headline of his article. –  Yoichi Oishi Sep 10 '11 at 23:12

It is not a common phrase. I do not think it is an idiom, per se. It is most likely a spontaneous phrasing. I have said similar things, in order to illustrate the idea of doing something absurd:

"I would not jump off a building," "I would not run my car off a bridge," "I would not stab myself in the eye with a knife," etc. It would simply mean "I won't do something absurd."

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In a briefing for naval aviators around 1978, I heard the Briefer counsel the lead aircraft's pilot for a multiplane launch from an airfield.

The briefer instructed the pilot to not use full afterburner from the start, since the canopies of his wingmen would probably be cracked open a bit for ventilation until the last minute.

He said,

"You don't want to set your wingman's hair on fire!"

It was a hit with everyone in attendance, and we adopted the phrase, as a squadron, for multiple purposes. That was the first time I'd ever heard anything about setting someone's hair on fire.

We used the phrases "set your hair on fire," "set his hair on fire," "set one's hair on fire," and "set my hair on fire" from then on to describe heightened activity, not doing something dumb, though.

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