Time magazine introduced Paul Ryan as a very likely presidential runner up in the article titled “Paul Ryan: The Prophet” as early as in its December 14, 2011 issue, and I was interested in the following line of the article:

If 2012 turns out to be a clear choice between very different answers to a genuinely important question – instead of the usual vague contest between competing slogans and haircuts — give the credit to Ryan.

Does haircuts simply mean “looks” or “character” (e.g. masculineness symbolized by GI cut) of the candidates in the above sentence, or it has meanings more than that?

If haircuts simply means “looks” or “character”, can I use haircut and hairstyle as an alternative to one’s appearance and character, for example, “He/she has a good (bad) haircut/hair dressing”, for an attractive (unattractive) person?

2 Answers 2


Use of haircut in this passage is an instance of metonymy, in which the single term haircut is used to stand for many aspects of appearance, including clothes, grooming, and mannerisms. While it represents appearance, I don't see it as representing character at all.

Occasionally one sees elections referred to as "beauty contests" or as "popularity contests", both referring to a tendency of voters to be strongly influenced by how candidates look, for example in televised appearances.

Regarding the comment by Charles that haircut is not a well-understood term for "looks" or "appearance", that's difficult to gauge. Some terms like "big hair", "newscaster hair", "bad hair day", and "news anchor hair" are widely-used in the US, and news stories about John Edwards' $400 haircut or about Bill Clinton's $200 haircut at LAX aboard Air Force 1 were legion a few years ago. But I agree that trying to summarize someone's appearance via "great haircut" or the like probably will lead to misunderstanding. It is less likely to be misunderstood if, being asked to speak in favor of a candidate, you merely mention their great haircut; almost everybody will understand that that is sarcasm.

  • +1 but it doesn't answer the second question. No, "haircut" is not a well-understood term for "looks" or "appearance".
    – Charles
    Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 3:10
  • @Charles, I've added a paragraph ~ Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 4:13
  • @Charles: that may be true about "haircut;" however, it's worth pointing out that the O.P. is well-known for finding quotes that use not-so-common metonyms in contemporary writing, such as pillow-plumping romance, Etch-a-Sketch, pretzel palace, open kimono, and high-rise ledge. Even if it's not common, that could be the intent.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 9:32
  • The New Yorker magazine’s description of “4 Pluses of Paul Ryan” may give us a hint on the positive meaning of ‘haircuts’ above.It picks up Ryan’s hearcut as ‘Hair squared, baby. Romney’s is legendary, of course, but Paul Ryan has excellent, even important, hair. So black, so slick, so adorable. That little widow’s peak brings just the right touch of devilish, yet not really satanic, mischief,” and as Ryan’s plus factor No.2. Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 1:23

I think the words you have italicized in your quote are basically a reference to how some voters, rather than doing careful research about where the candidates stand on important issues, are instead influenced by short sound bytes, charisma or charm, and good looks.

So, does ‘haircuts’ simply mean ‘looks’ or ‘character’? I say this kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I think you're giving the American voter too much credit by throwing the word ‘character’ in there.

  • 4
    Some voters may also recall the interest in John Edwards' $400 haircut in the 2008 election cycle.
    – Cameron
    Commented Aug 11, 2012 at 22:16
  • @J.R.In Japanese notion, looks and character correlate each other because looks is representation of character as our adages go - ‘Man is responsible for his face’ and ‘Man’s face is (represents for) his personal history after 40 of age. Are looks and character totally separate subjects or issues in western notion? Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 9:22
  • 1
    @YoichiOishi: I'm afraid so; one needn't look much further than Hollywood or Washington to find several examples of prominent Americans who are long on looks but short on character. In the U.S., at least, looks and character are not generally considered intertwined.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 9:37

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