Tag Archives: leiotrichous


Our idea of mothers is very much shaped by the way our own respective mothers were when we were young. My mother, in the 1970s when I was in my most formative years, was winsome, sanguine, sage, easily amused, gastronomically expert, mellifluous of voice, statuesque, and lissotrichous.

No, I did not know the word lissotrichous at the time. I may have been a boy genius and super annoying and all that but come on. Here, though, see her in the summer of 1976:

Look at that lovely long brown hair. My parents were never hippies, but my mother had the look of the time, and how. She was certainly not the only woman around with long hair, but her hair was so smooth and shiny and long it was a signature feature. For the young me, a mother was a woman who laughed at the corniest jokes, cooked amazingly, sang beautifully, and had… hair as you see.

And I say why not use a long word for long hair? Lissotrichous actually means ‘smooth-haired’; it has a synonym in leiotrichous. The liss brings with it a sound of something glistening and blissfully lissome; it almost feels like long hair cascading over shoulders. The word unfortunately has the stress on the second syllable, which is probably those Greeks trying to trick us… well, the –trichous part is pronounced “trick us,” after all. So lissotrichous is “liss aw trick us.” And, like my mother’s hair, you can see its roots, which do not differ from the rest: λισσός lissos ‘smooth’ and τριχ– trikh– a declined form of θρίξ thrix ‘hair’.

When I was very young, she had her hair fashionably up, at least for a photo or two:

When I was a teenager, she turned again with the times and permed it:

But when I was at my brattiest, when she had two boys who in conjunction would have taxed the patience of a saint, when she was also teaching school kids every day, she had the kind of hair that gave Samson strength, the kind of hair that brought love to Rapunzel, the hair of a heroine in a Disney movie.

Her mother may have moved to a pageboy bob, and her grandmother may have opted for senior-citizen short, but my mother had hair equal in length to her patience, equal in smoothness to her temperament, equal in quality to her cooking. Who knows; it may have in some way inspired me, 15 years later, to grow my own hair to 24 inches long. (I do not blame her for inspiring the purple dye job. Or the choice of shirts.)

Well, that’s one way to be… hair to the tradition.

I am happy to report that she also taught me how to cook. These days my hair is short and hers is not as long as it once was, but we still have the cooking. And she’s still my wonderful Mom.

cymotrichous, leiotrichous, ulotrichous

When I was a little kid, certain adults would tell me to eat the crusts on my bread because they would make my hair curly.

This did not make me want to eat the crusts on my bread.

Seriously, what was so much better about curly hair? I was perfectly happy with my hair, which was fine and straight. (It still is, though I have since discovered that if I grow it to 24 inches it develops a whorl at the bottom.)

Nonetheless, one time at age 4 or 5 when I was at the home of a friend of mine, her mother was curling her hair and asked if I would like a curl, and when I said yes she put a curl right in the middle of the top of my head. I think it lasted a few days. I probably looked like a soft-serve ice cream cone.

Some words are like that curl: unnecessary ornaments used just because someone thinks they will look good: “A longer, hairier word would go better here.” I have nothing against ornamental words, of course – I have a massive collection of them – but I also don’t think they are intrinsically better. There is no prima facie reason to think that a polysyllabic Latin-Greek confection is a truer, more accurate name for a thing than two syllables of Anglo-Saxon. But words are known by the company they keep, and some words just look like they belong to the best clubs.

Today’s triplet of words are a veritable Huey, Dewey, and Louie – or maybe Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – or, hmm, Larry, Curly, and Moe – of ostentatious sesquipedalian pseudo-classicism. They are words that you will probably encounter in three places: newspaper articles written by the same sort of people who feel compelled to call a cucumber an indehiscent pepo and to call a pumpkin a gourd four times for every once they call it a pumpkin; “did you know” articles and lists passed around by the kind of people you’d really like to unfriend on Facebook but don’t want to cause bad feelings; and spelling bees.

All three of these words are made from Greek parts and have been around in English for about a century and a half. They were made up by a French naturalist who wanted to classify humans into types by hair, because if you’re going to classify things you have to classify them in Latin or Greek or it’s not science!

Because of the time when they came into English, their pronunciation follows the old-style English-oriented pronunciation of classical words. For one thing, the stress is on the antepenult – the third-last syllable – in all three. For another, cymo is said like “sigh mo,” leio is said like “lie oh,” and ulo is said like “you low.” (That makes my hair stand on end. People! These are Greek roots!)

Any guesses as to what they mean, what they classify? Try the trichous half; it’s the less tricky part. Have you seen the word trichotillomania? It’s a compulsion to pull one’s hair out. (Endemic to the editorial profession, if figuratively.) The source is the Greek τριχ trikh root, which refers to hair.

So. I am leiotrichous. This may sound like the self-introduction of some ancient monster or warrior, but it just means I have straight hair – Greek λεῖος leios ‘smooth’. Certain adults of my childhood thought it was better to be ulotrichous: to have curly hair – Greek οὖλος oulos ‘crisp, curly’. Many people favour being cymotrichous: having wavy hair – Greek κῦμα kuma ‘wave’. I like all sorts of hair, and all lengths from ankle to none. I’m fine with what I have.

And now we have three more words to stick on the knick-knack shelf. They are the kind of word you will always need to define on first use unless you’re talking to a true in-group. They’re like that odd mystical little object that looks rare and special and pricey but that is unidentifiable until you explain to your dinner guests that it is the trigger assembly from a Qin Dynasty crossbow. Then they all nod sagely and are impressed.

But you may also want to tread a little carefully. These words are now used (when used at all) simply as descriptives for kinds of hair, but words that began as means of racial classification can sometimes have a bit of an off odour to them – like burnt hair, maybe.