What images does this word call to mind? Hair styled in many different ways, perhaps. Dyed in bright colours, left naturally grey. Curly, straight, wavy. Completely shaved off, balding or thick and luxurious. There are many ways our hair can be.
But what of the word itself? Where does it come from?
We’ll start our journey with Middle English, and its enormous variety of spellings for this word: hẹ̄r, er, herre, heir, hier, hear, hær hor, har, and even the familiar hair. Our first example is from Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale, from 1375.
In his heeris al his strengthe lay.
Does it look familiar? The whole sentence is still very close to modern English. Even with the alternative spellings, the modern word is still recognizable in its predecessors.
Let’s compare it with an earlier example, this time taken from the period of the language known as Old English, some 300 years before Chaucer. This comes from The Homilies of Ælfric, an English monk and abbot.
Ne sceal eów beón forloren án hǽr of eówrum heáfde
[Not one hair of your head will be lost]
In case you are wondering where it is, the form of the word here is hǽr. I would say that it is still recognizable, and we can still see hair in this earlier form. There are cognates of the word in other Germanic languages, such as hǣr in West Saxon, hēr in other Saxon areas, har in Old Norse and Old German. Modern German and Dutch share the word Haar.
All these point to a common root in Proto Germanic, and the proposed term is *hæran or *khæran, simply meaning ‘hair’.
Sometimes it may seem odd that we are still using the same words with only minor differences that people used so many centuries ago. Personally, it makes me wonder what the language of the future will be like