I was talking with my friend, colleague, and fellow word taster Amy Toffelmire today about the Oscar results, and how she had beaten me in the office Oscar pool by correctly picking the documentary (all the rest of our picks were identical). I had picked Paradise Lost 3. Amy commented that the characters in the movie were what she, growing up in Arkansas (where the movie is set) and California, had called heshers.

Now, if you know what hesher means, and you have read enough of my posts to know I have a certain liking for heavy metal music (many other kinds, too, have no fear), you will probably be surprised to learn that I was entirely unfamiliar with the term. Amy explained that they were metalheads, a particular breed thereof. She forwarded me the Urban Dictionary link.

I love Urban Dictionary. It shows very clearly that the way a lot of people approach semantics – trying to isolate abstract defining properties, and setting aside what they call “encyclopedic knowledge” – has real shortcomings. As a reliable dictionary, Urban Dictionary of course has its own shortcomings, but for a term like this one – a slang term used by just the sort of people who frequent the site – its assorted entries, which are contributed by whoever wants and voted on by site visitors, help to paint a pretty good picture of the way people picture the word’s object. I will quote several of its definitions at length, with vulgarities censored not because I have a problem with them but because I know they will unduly distract some readers:

Reebock-wearing, mulleted person in acid-washed jeans and a Judas Priest T-shirt who, at the age of 28, still lives in his/her parents’ basement and swears that he/she can really rock out on his/her Ibanez Stratocaster copy guitar and probably owns a Nova that hasn’t run in 5 years but you just wait, that ——er is gonna smoke those ——in Japanese rice burners once I put a new head gasket on it.

Long haired, usually mulleted person who listens and rocks out to Metal or Thrash music.Generally seen wearing acid-washed jeans, leather motorcycle or denim jacket covered with band and skull patches. Will often have a Molester Moustache

A grungy, long haired, plastic comb-brush in the back pocket stoner with an 80’s rock shirt. Sometimes, a little ‘off’ from the drug damage. Rides an adult sized BMX bike around town and knocks over trash cans by kicking out with his back tire.

By now you really have a pretty clear image, don’t you? It’s true that the definitions can be a little overly precise, but if you have the image, then you have the type, and you undoubtedly have seen that type of person. Not all metalheads are heshers. Not all stoners are heshers. Not all people with mullets (or similar hair) are heshers. Not all people who have a problem adapting to adult reality are heshers. But heshers exist as a subset in the intersection of those sets, and further characteristics are entailed as emergent or culturally determined properties.

To further define the type, a movie, Hesher, was made in 2010. The central character is actually named Hesher, but it’s after the type. The biggest-name actor in the movie was Natalie Portman. And yet you probably haven’t heard of it, let alone seen it. Neither have I. From what I’ve read, it sucked. Which seems oddly appropriate.

The term hesher itself has been around for somewhat longer than that. It seems to have come into being in the 1980s. The etymology is a little smoky, but of course there are plenty of ideas. The lamest one is one that I saw on Yahoo! Answers, suggesting that it’s from he+she+her in reference to the long hair. Other speculation is that it’s some kind of blend of headbanger or heavy metal and thrasher. Some think it was first a term for a drug user (possibly from a verb hesh, heshing), but aside from an obvious taste of hash there’s no particular account for this (nor any explanation for the necessary vowel shift). Certainly no one is attempting to say that the word comes from the sound and sensation of inhaling marijuana or the torrents of white noise you hear when too near a stage stack speaker, both of which hesher sounds a bit like.

Perhaps the most common theory attaches it to Hessian, which was a term that came into being in the 1980s, probably in self-reference first, for a certain aggressively masculine type of headbanger (metalhead), perhaps a specific subset who preferred German industrial metal and perhaps neo-Nazi imagery (metal in general is not a hotbed of racism), but Germanic and bellicose imagery are common currency in many metal circles. The reference is of course to the Teutonic mercenaries of the 18th century. Some references to Hessians (of the metal kind) use hesher as a shortened form. Given the frequency of -er words in reference to types of music fans (especially in these kinds of genres), as well as the palatalization of the /s/ before the /i/ in Hessian (and the frequent assimilation of the /i/ into that), the derivation is reasonable, though I do not have full proof for it.

Incidentally, the original Hessians were called Hessians because many of them were from Hesse, a state in Germany. It contains cities such as Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Offenbach. Hesse in turn gained its name from a Latin version of the original Germanic name of the inhabitants, the Chatti or Hassi. And there the trail runs cold. But it’s fair to imagine that the Chatti had long, greasy hair, wore leather jackets, smoked a lot of weed, listened to thrash metal, and drove burnt-out cars or BMX bikes. Not.

8 responses to “hesher

  1. Wow. That was a lot of speculation. Bravo.

  2. This is not specifically about this particular post (although I enjoyed it immensely) – but I just have to tell you how much I LOVE your blog. I have always loved what my Grandfather would call “50 cent words” and consider myself to have a good vocabulary, but you are truly awe inspiring in what you say, and how you say it. And now, for what must surely be among the biggest compliments anyone could ever be paid- some days I can even get my 14 year old daughter and 12 year old son to listen to some or most of your blog as I slowly read it out loud to myself to really savor and enjoy it! Occasionally, (GASP) they even make a comment or discuss it with me! Thanks so much for your wonderful and thought provoking work!

  3. I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley in the early 80’s and ‘Hesher’ or ‘Hesh’ referred to a kid who listened to heavy metal music such as Metallica, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, etc. (“Hesher music”) as opposed to kids who were into New Wave / British Invasion or Mod or Punk Rockers, all of whom were kids who stepped outside the musical norm of Pop music or the Van Halen brand of Rock and Roll. It was often used in a derogatory sense with reference to their musical tastes and sense of style which was usually all black with black heavy metal concert t-shirts, black boots, silver jewelry, and usually but not always with long hair. You’d hear it used in phrases such as, “Ew, he’s total Hesh!” or “Who’s the Hesher?” or “Oh my God it’s a room full of Hesh.” That said, even though people with like tastes would generally hang out together, there was no sense that you could not cross boundaries and hang with the Heshers during lunchtime. The two main characters in Wayne’s World would have been considered Heshers.

  4. sesquiotic wrote: “Incidentally, the original Hessians were called Hessians because many of them were from Hesse, a state in Germany. It contains cities such as Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Offenbach. Hesse in turn gained its name from a Latin version of the original Germanic name of the inhabitants, the Chatti or Hassi. And there the trail runs cold. But it’s fair to imagine that the Chatti had long, greasy hair, wore leather jackets, smoked a lot of weed, listened to thrash metal, and drove burnt-out cars or BMX bikes. Not.”

    The “Hessians” motorcycle club (formed 1968 Costa Mesa, CA). Is where this term emanates from. They took their name from the Hessian (German) mercenaries who “reveled in battle as heartily as they did on Holiday” (http://hessiansmc.com/) and were hired by King George III to fight against the colonies in the American revolution.

    The header on the club’s website pretty much delineates a perfect definition for the term “Hessian.”
    “Harleys were a lot more fun when they were ‘exclusively’
    ridden by angry, violent, intoxicated, anti-social, poorly groomed,
    heavily tattooed maniacs.”
    Check it out here: http://hessiansmc.com/

    Those of us who grew up in southern California back in the day didn’t need to go to these lengths to understand this term. We understood it inherently.

    • Thanks for that! One thing I didn’t mention is that I’m descended from one of the Hessians who fought against the colonists and then stayed and became an American himself. (I’m also descended, up the other side, from one of the people he was shooting at – and who were shooting at him. Maybe that cancels it out and is why I’m not a hesher, even if I like metal.)

  5. The movie Hesher is actually one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend you watching it.

  6. that term has been around at least since the mid 80s. in high school (northern California) it’s what everyone called the metal kids. they were always cool enough to me, being somewhat goth and into post punk, to bum me a smoke when i’d go off campus for lunch. hesher was just a descriptive. whether it was meant as positive, negative or neutral depended on the context. to this day I still refer to anyone really into metal as a hesher (that’s how I came across this article – because I’ve been shocked several times recently to find out its meaning isn’t a given to everyone) hope that helps.

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