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What is the origin of the idiom "tearing hair out" or "pulling my hair out"?

  • I wonder if it's just evolved from trichotillomania, which may be triggered by ... stress. – James Webster Sep 3 '13 at 15:02
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    You can tell that this practice was common 1000s of years ago because the Talmud warns against this way of showing excessive mourning: jhom.com/topics/hair/mourning.html – dcaswell Sep 3 '13 at 18:31
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    This isn't an "idiom"; it literally refers to hair being torn out in dispair. – Kaz Sep 3 '13 at 20:49
  • Keep in mind that maybe as recent as 500 years ago most people did not keep their hair cut reasonably short. Men's hair would often be shoulder length or longer, and of course women's hair would tend to be longer still. So it was quite possible to grab your hair and pull on it in times of despair or rage, not much different from gritting your teeth or digging your fingernails into your palm. No doubt, in extreme cases people managed to pull some hair out (just as the tooth gritting or fingernail digging could do some damage). – Hot Licks Mar 5 '17 at 3:27
  • @Hot Licks: What do you mean, 500 years ago? Long hair has been fairly common in western culture since the 1960s. And while I may not literally pull my hair out, I do tend to run my fingers through it when I'm e.g. working on a frustrating problem. So the 'idiom' is likely nothing more than a somewhat exaggerated description. – jamesqf Mar 5 '17 at 5:39
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OED has this pre-dating Shakespeare:

m. to tear (†rend) one's hair, i.e. as a symptom of passionate grief.
1548 Hall's Vnion: Henry IV f. xiiijv, This knight..sobbed, wept, and rent his heare.
1609 Shakespeare Troilus & Cressida iv. iii. 33 Teare my bright haire, & scratch my praised cheekes.

It is something which can actually be witnessed in more demonstrative cultures. Mourners can indeed pull their own hair.

As an indication of exasperation, however ("I was pulling my hair out trying to get the copier to work!") there seems to be rather less information — although Shyam's trichotillomania may well be related.

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There is a specific name for the urge to pull out one's hair - trichotillomania. It is a disorder belonging to the obsessive compulsive spectrum and arises due to anxiety and stress, among other reasons. This idiom (and others like keep one's hair on) must have originated from this disorder.

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It originates in the Bible in the Book of Nehemiah. The prophet Nehemiah pulled his hair out in response to the desecration of the holy Temple and at the abuse of the Sabbath.

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