The answer can be "Because it doesn't!" or "It wasn't needed!" in short but there might be a historical or linguistic explanation behind this. (Of course, every language might be lacking a word that another language has and you can give the meaning in a context.)

This question came up mainly because there are several languages which has separate words for head hair and body hair. For example, head hair is capelli in Italian, saç in Turkish, cheveu in French and kopfhaar in German. But in English, hair is like a hypernym for head hair and body hair.

When we check the etymology of hair, the origin is related to the German word haar. And interestingly, German language came up with kopfhaar which literally means headhair.

Old English hær "hair, a hair," from Proto-Germanic *khæran (cognates: Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old High German har, Old Frisian her, Dutch and German haar "hair"), perhaps from PIE *ghers- "to stand out, to bristle, rise to a point" (cognates: Lithuanian serys "bristle;" see horror).

When we dive into biology, we can see that there are structural differences between body hair and head hair but they are composed of the same substance, keratin. Though, there is a distinction in terminology:

Androgenic hair, colloquially body hair, is the terminal hair that develops on the human body during and after puberty. It is differentiated from the head hair and less visible vellus hair, which are much finer and lighter in color.

And a twist ending: Wiktionary has a definition (and even an etymology) for "headhair":

From Middle English *heed-heer, from Old English hēafodhǣr (“hair of the head, headhair”), equivalent to head +‎ hair. Cognate with Dutch hoofdhaar (“headhair”), German Haupthaar (“headhair”), Danish hovedhår (“headhair”), Swedish huvudhår (“headhair”).

I can see that "headhair" is used in a few sources but it is not common. Personally I haven't encountered this word before I did this research.

  • How come both "hair" and "headhair" emerged (for the same meaning)?
  • Why didn't "headhair" gain a common usage? What happened in the history?
  • Does "headhair" have a current usage? (only in technical sources?)

Note: Just to emphasize, the question is not only about finding words, its about the history and origin of the words as well. Also, the question can be: "Why doesn't English have a common separate word for “head hair”? (head hair vs. body hair)"

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    I believe it is head of hair in English. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 2:15
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    As another data point, Chinese has 头发 (tóufa) hair (literally head hair), but for body hair 毛 is used, which is more like "fur" in English. Perhaps just chance that hair is assumed to be head hair unless further qualified (back hair, leg hair, pubic hair, beard hair). Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 2:46
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    Capo is head in Italian, while pelo (usually fur) peli/pelli (hairs) hence "capelli" is literally head hairs.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 5:01
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    Asking why a language doesn't have a word can only be answered with "it hasn't been needed often enough." Different langauges solve the same problems different ways; that's part of the challenge, and fun, of learning a new language. However, in US English, "hair" is often used to mean "head hair", with qualfiers added when referring to other hair; context may alter that assumption, so effectively we do have a word for it -- just not a fully-distinct word. ("Go comb your hair!" is unambiguous unless you have reason to interpret it otherwise.)
    – keshlam
    Commented Jun 30, 2014 at 22:35
  • 3
    When we say hair in English we mean head hair unless something else is specified: arm hair, pubic hair, whatever.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 11:17

7 Answers 7


You pose what I take to be two questions:

(1) Why is 'head hair' two words instead of one (especially given other words like bedroom)?

We all know what a car radio, a toaster oven, a graveyard shift and a spring chicken are; I don't think we'd benefit from making them a single word, even if other languages might do so -- indeed French and German have 'autoradio' instead.

'Word count' is really about language-specific word derivation practices, practices that might be constrained by grammar or just by custom.

The more interesting question you pose is

(2) Why is there no separate lexeme for head hair?

Well, as others mentioned, there are rare words like 'chevelure' and 'coif' that may fit the bill; on the other hand, they might be better viewed as foreign words. In any case even without them I think we need to remember that vocabulary does not develop merely as a result of 'need': there is a lot of randomness in language (one might draw an analogy to 'genetic drift' in the theory of evolution, which results in random elimination of some genes in a population, merely as a result of chance (http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/IIIDGeneticdrift.shtml)).

I personally think that English has a lot of vocabulary that is not 'needed' by any objective, non-sentimental criteria, since other languages seem to make do with paraphrase in the same situation (and likewise for other languages). Vocabulary seems to develop by random acts of creativity that are not especially 'useful' (slang is a perfect example, which lives and dies on sociological grounds, rather than on 'being unable to express oneself otherwise', although I accept the distinction between the two is not quite that clear-cut).

PS The word for 'gloves' in German is 'Handschuhe', or 'hand shoes'. No separate lexeme.

In brief, I think it is mostly because of chance that there is no separate lexeme for head hair.

Good evidence against this view would be evidence that, for example, discussion of head hair was taboo among prior English speakers (for example, because it invited the wrath of God. Many religions do still have hair taboos). A similar phenomenon is believed to have occurred for 'bear', which in many languages is derived from a circumlocution. In Croatian the word for 'bear' is literally 'honey-eater.' Even English's 'bear' is derived from 'brown.' The reasons are thought to have to do with warding off bad luck by avoiding a direct, separate name. See http://www.cloudline.org/LinguisticArchaeology.html.

But I know of no evidence for such a theory as regards head hair, nor even for the simpler theory that English speakers thought of head hair in a different way (a culture-determines-vocabulary type argument).


Though it is of French origin, chevelure is a head of hair

Etymology: French, from Old French chevelëure, from Late Latin capillatura, from Latin capillatus having long hair, from capillus hair Date: 15th century a head of hair

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    Holy mackerel! A new word that I have never seen before. Is there a current usage? I can see that it is used in some English sources from 1800's so it seems like obsolete. But it is hard to find English sources because of the results in French.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 2:51
  • @ermanen, I was just thinking about this, I used the term often as a child but I was raised bilingually, and that may be a factor
    – Third News
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 2:55
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    I encountered chevelure for the first time less than a week ago, in researching the question Why is unexpectedly common but expectedly not?. As I noted in a comment there, English speakers are far more familiar with another word that has the same root as chevelure: disheveled.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 15:11

If you refer to someone's "coif", (short for "coiffure") it refers to the hair on a person's head - usually styled nicely, as in "Her friends all envied her new coif", but it is most definitely a reference to head hair.

From MWO - the origin of COIFFURE is French, from coiffer - to cover with a coif, arrange (hair), from coife, from Old French

First Known Use: circa 1631


French has chevelure. Spanish has cabello or cabellera. In English you can use "mane."

As defined in M-W:

long, thick hair on a person's head.

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    Especially for lions.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 4:06
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    Well, dictionary definition of mane is: "long, thick hair on a person's head" but it is not used by itself to mean head hair of a person (as I know, in the current vernacular). It is usually used as a descriptive word as in "mane of blonde hair". Though, it might be used in literary context by itself to mean the head of hair. It would be nice to analyze the usage stats in the history.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 4:20
  • FWIW, French also distinguishes cheveux (a head hair) from poile (a body hair).
    – Drew
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 2:04
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    Mane, like tresses, only works if the head hair has some length. Someone with a crew cut would not have his head hair referred to as a mane.
    – MJ6
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 3:35
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    It's funny the adjectives we restrict to/copy from animal vocabulary. I'd personally like to use words like 'palomino' or 'flea-bitten gray' on people once in a while.
    – Merk
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 9:00

English has a word for head hair: locks

1lock noun \ˈläk\

Definition of LOCK


a: a tuft, tress, or ringlet of hair

b:plural: the hair of the head


The etymology can be traced as:

"tress of hair," Old English locc "lock of hair, curl," from Proto-Germanic *lukkoz (cognates: Old Norse lokkr, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch lok, Old High German loc, German Locke "lock of hair"), from PIE *lugnos-, perhaps related to Greek lygos "pliant twig, withe," Lithuanian lugnas "flexible." http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=lock

Admittedly, locks is not used nearly as often as hair is to refer to head hair. Yet locks does not seem to ever be used to refer to hair anywhere except on the head.

  • The lexeme discussion is interesting, but "locks" is a pretty close match to "head hair" lexemes in other languages.
    – wordsmythe
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 15:01

The question is why some languages have different lexemes whereas English has a single lexeme with compounding possibilities.

The notion of need or cultural salience has often been brought into the discussion. Chinese has different lexemes for uncooked rice (米 mǐ) and cooked rice (饭 fàn). Malay has different lexemes for rice on the stalk padi, uncooked rice grains beras and cooked rice nasi. In English rice suffices for all. (Paddy is available but strictly speaking not required.) In this case, the cultural salience argument appears more convincing.

It would be difficult to apply this line of thinking to head hair and body hair because the experience of both is universal across all cultures. (However, someone might object and say that even though hair is a universal phenomenon, certain cultures might choose to talk more about it than others, in which case we might want to bring in the cultural salience argument.) In this case, I would conclude that English speakers have been sufficiently satisfied with not having different lexemes: either because (a) hair on its own is used to refer to head hair stereotypically and so hair elsewhere requires further specification, (b) context has almost always been adequate for disambiguation. To counter (a), we might bring in the case of the term hairy when referring to people often does refer to body hair. A hairy man typically has longer head hair, probably facial hair and probably pronounced chest, arm and leg hair. A hairy woman has typically more pronounced hair than usual on the arms and legs; or possibly unshaven armpits. I veer towards (b).


Consider poll.

OED s.v. poll, n.1 I.1.a.

The part of the head on which the hair grows; the head as characterized by the colour or state of the hair; the scalp of a person or animal. Now arch. or regional.

  • 1
    sounds like this is describing everything but the hair - the top of the head, scalp, the head itself...
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 18:19
  • Yet the second definition here, after the first semicolon, admits of such usages as "a curly blond poll." Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 18:25

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