`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

My hair had wanted cutting for a very long time, and today I finally acceded. I had a few hours in between my morning appointments at work and my afternoon one, and all of a sudden an irresistible flash of urgency came over me. I was either going to get it lopped off once and for all or I’d never get it cut, but I’d had it with my passivity and dawdling. I only realized how out of hand I’d let it get by way of dancing, my main pastime– while it can be sexy to whip my dance partners in the face with my hair while doing turns and spins, it had reached the point where they were getting unpleasantly ensnared in it. Not so sexy.

When my hair was still a manageable length for whipping, 8 months ago

When my hair was still a manageable length for whipping, 8 months ago

The last time I got a haircut was in September 2011 and before that November 2009 in Medellín and Bogotá respectively. I remember both times well. In Bogotá, I was with two friends, Yadira and Alba, and when Yadi saw a peluquería and decided to get her hair cut and colored on a whim, Alba and I had to join in on the fun. I didn’t even bother trying to guide Leonardo, the hairstylist, with my lousy Spanish. I just let the muse strike him. In Medellín, I went one day to a dirt-cheap salon with hot pink signs across from the metro station closest to my apartment. Filled with young girls who were surely fresh out of beauty school (if even that), I did my best to tell Mabel what I wanted. I paid about $2.50, and did I ever get what I paid for. When I got home and used two mirrors to see the back, I saw to my horror that she had done a complete hack job. Doing my best to blindly fix it with a pair of scissors, I then diligently proceeded to wear my hair up for the next few months. 

Hair is symbolic, so what was I doing holding on to that same hair from Colombia almost a year and a half later? This haircut was long overdue. I suppose in seven years all of my cells will be renewed, and then I’ll have reached a new outward symbol of regeneration and growth (and, inherently, loss). By then, the only tangible link I’ll still retain to Colombia will be this Colombian Spanish I couldn’t shake off me if I tried.

To wit: here’s a bit of hair and haircut vocabulary I remember from Colombia. Supremely personal, supremely unhelpful. If you hadn’t noticed, this blog is moving away from being helpful and trying to be more and more an end unto itself.

Motilarse – motilarse was the verb I usually heard in Medellín for getting your hair cut. If it’s used in Bogotá, I missed it. Very informal, very Paisa and Caribbean. Or so I thought–I now see that it’s in the DRAE. In fact, I’ve learned that when Spanish settlers arrived in Venezuela and Colombia in the early 1600s, they called the indigenous Barí people of the Catatumbo region Motilones because of their short hair. The name has stuck. Motilar, then, would seem to be an archaic Spanish word that is now used almost exclusively in Colombia. The Colombians are in good company–Cervantes himself used the word motilón in Don QuijoteHas de saber que una viuda . . . se enamoró de un mozo motilón . . . (Motilón here refers to lay people who would wear their hair close-cropped like priests.) Motilar shares an etymological ancestor with mutilate. Ouch.


A Motilón/Barí woman

Hacer estragos – I remember Jose (not José), a psychologist at the school I worked at in Bogotá and with whom I once went on a date, saying me hizo estragos when talking about a botched haircut he had just received. It doesn’t specifically have to do with hair per se, but I’ll always think of hair when I hear it. It means to wreak havoc, to ravage, to do a number on.

Trasquilar – Speaking of haircuts gone wrong, I shared above that I got one myself while living in Medellín. It was my own fault, though. I did my best to offset the damage, but my hair was still very crooked. I kept insisting that I’d go somewhere and get it fixed, but I never did, hence the updos that I sported over the next few months. My positive takeaway? I learned the word trasquilar— it means to butcher a haircut, to cut hair badly, to make someone look like they got in a fight with a lawnmower. One friend, Lina, thought my lopsided hair was the height of hilarity, and she could never resist teasing me about my pelo trasquilado every time we met up. It got old fast, but the word stuck. Now that I’m poking around the internet, I’ve stumbled upon the phrase ir por lana y salir/volver trasquilado – to get more than one bargained for, to go for wool and come home shorn (never heard it), to have things backfire on you. You break up with someone to be with someone who seems better and then the new guy turns out to be a dud and you’re single again, worse off than when you started. You move to a new city to take a job that pays more but you never even see those extra earnings because you have to pay more in rent, transport, etc. I love the ovine imagery of the phrase, and I’m committed to using it as much as I can.

Peluquear – Another common way of saying cortar el pelo in Colombia and some other countries. In others, though, it doesn’t even exist. A peluquero is a hairdresser or barber (also barbero). I remember that Alba’s dad was a peluquero. It’s a funny word, if you think about it, because a peluca is a wig. I once bought a purple one off the street in Bogotá. Another word that’s related to peluca and is very common and useful is despelucado/a – with messy hair, with bed head, unkempt, scruffy. There’s also despeinado/a.

Pelucada with Jose

Pelucada with Jose

Ligero – Another one that has no obvious connection to hair. I feel like getting something off my chest, though. So, when I was getting my hair cut in Medellín by Mabel, I naturally tried to speak my very best Spanish but inevitably failed. I remember her asking me at one point ¿Te crece ligero? And I thought, ligero, ligero, ligero. What the dickens did it mean? I could only remember ligero meaning light, as in the opposite of heavy. And then I thought I recognized it from a book of Horacio Quiroga stories I had read. I thought it meant smooth, straight. (I was confusing it with lacio.) As my hair is naturally straight, I said something to the effect of oh yeah, it’s totally straight, I don’t even own a comb or brush, aren’t I lucky? And she looked at me uncomprehendingly like I was from another planet, shrugged, and kept on mutilating my hair. Much to my dismay, I realized my silly error later on. Ligero in this context meant fast, a common way of saying it in Medellín and other places.

Those are the first hairy words that come to mind. A few others are espeluznante, rapar and raponazo, and peliagudo, among others, so I’ll try to write another installment the next time I do something to my hair. I’ve been wanting to dye it burgundy, so maybe then.

Oh, and today while driving home, I was listening to NPR and they were talking about someone suing somebody for damages. A guest commentator said something like, “We don’t know which people they’ll give a haircut and which people they’ll just touch lightly.” My brow furrowed; I don’t think I’d ever heard haircut used that way. To give someone a haircut? Apparently it means cleaning someone out, causing them to lose a great deal of money. I guess there’s getting a haircut, and then there’s getting a haircut, whether your hair wanted cutting or not.


14 responses to “Haircuts

  1. You forgot melenudo… :)


    • Nope, didn’t forget, didn’t even know it! But I knew melena. Ah, and I just remembered the phrase virgen de pueblo. I just shared the tip of the iceberg hair-wise; I was most interested in the stories. Got any? :)


  2. whatwhileweslept

    Wait to you DID get a haircut? And did NOT post a photo????
    Also, I bet ligero shares a root with legerity. Does it?


    • In the DRAE, for ligero’s etymology, it says (Del fr. léger), so I’m thinking YES.

      So, does this mean that the readership is clamoring for photos? I didn’t want to seem vain ;)


  3. So how short did you go? I sometimes get urges to chop all my hair off, even though I know this would be a mistake…but it’s the easiest change to make if you’re not into getting piercings or tattoos or plastic surgery…


    • It’s just a little above my shoulders. I wanted it around my jawline, but I was kind of nervous about it. Next time I want it super short!

      Why do you think it would be a mistake for you to chop it all off? No, not into any of those things. Not that I don’t toy with the idea from time to time…


  4. Where you will hear currently people talking about “getting a hair cut” in a financial sense is in Cyprus, where the government closed the banks and then told all depostiors that they would have to lose up to 40% of their savings to help reduce the national debt. Cypriats interviewed on TV News are all using that phrase.

    Very interesting blog you have there (or is it here?). Thanks.


  5. Never heard of “virgen de pueblo;” I wonder where that comes from.

    Melenudo has generally a negative tone to it, but, depending on the context, it could also be funny or endearing (like almost everything else), and it is pretty much used just for men. I mean, although it is not incorrect to speak of a melenuda, it is not really used because a woman just has long hair, and that is a common trait. A man, on the other hand, is supposed to have short hair so saying that someone is un melenudo indicates that this person is not like everybody else in society (this probably comes from the 60’s when musicians like the Beatles and then the hippies made the sight of men with long hair more or less common, much to the dismay of many older adults of the time).

    How about mechudo/mechuda or desgreñado? Also, women named Mercedes are often called “Mechas,” and this brings the image of hair.

    I probably could come up with a few hair stories but not as good as yours. I do remember my mom getting making me cut my hair as a punishment one time after I did something that was probably not very nice (I don’t remember what it was).


    • Yes, I once blogged about Mechas here

      In addition to the two haircuts I got in Colombia, I accompanied my ex several times when he got his hair cut. I thought it unfortunate that there was apparently such pressure down there for men to maintain super short hair in workplaces– we’re so much more relaxed here in the U.S., and I think we have much more productivity to show for our time.

      Oye, ¿conoces la palabra cascudo?


      • No, never heard of cascudo. Sounds funny, what does it mean? Not related to casquisuelta, I’m sure :) And moving into a different, but somewhat related, direction, this hair thing reminded me first of “pelado” and from there I went to “mocoso.”

        Thanks for the link to the older post, I had a good laugh. BTW, did you hear of “adrede”? Same thing as “aposta.”


        • What’s casquisuelta? Mi amigo colombiano me dice que era palabra de la época de su abuela, y que cree que se refería a una prostituta. ¿Así es? Que se le caían los cascos muy fácilmente, o sea se quitaban los zapatos rápido para ir a la cama con los clientes. ¿Y los cascos son las pezuñas de los caballos?

          Wow, I had totally forgotten about the word adrede!! :(


  6. About the financial meaning of “getting a haircut”: this expression shows up a lot in the context of the bank bailouts in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The question is whether private investors (rather than just the tax payer) should “take a haircut”!


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