Meanings of “By The Short Hairs”
The phrase “by the short hairs” means to be caught, or get caught, or be held by the short hair. It also means the same thing in British English where it is used as “by the short and curlies.” Simply, it means to be trapped by an enemy or rival or opponent in a state which is difficult to escape from.
Origin of “By The Short Hairs”
The assumption of the “short hairs” or “short and curlies” referring to pubic hair is not correct. It refers to the hairs on the neck. The phrase could have been used in the military. The phrase “by the short hairs” was first used by Rudyard Kipling in The Drums of the Fore and Aft published in 1890. Regarding British occupation, he said, “They’ll shout and carry on like this for five minutes. Then they’ll rush in, and then we’ve got ’em by the short hairs!”
The perception of the phrase changed when L. Dorothy Slayers in her collaboration with Robert Eustace in her novel Doctors in Case from 1930 wrote, “She’s evidently got her husband by the short hairs.” Since then, the phrase has been used in different versions as shown above.
Examples in Literature
Quarry’s Choice by Max Allan Collins
He sighed, nodded, bowing to my wisdom. “You know, Jackie thinks he has these politicians by the short and the curlies, and maybe he does, but nobody is immune from a bullet.”
“How does he have them that way? Short and curlies, I mean. Just because he pays them off?”
Mr. Woody smirked and shook his head. “No, Quarry, it’s more than pay-offs. Our Jackie’s one smart cookie. He’s got a fantasy hotel he uses. Down the Strip half a mile.
This passage talks about two characters, Woody and Quarry. They are talking about the politicians and Jackie, and how Jackie treats them. The phrase has been used in the second line and then in the third line in its short form. They talk about Jackie who has politicians by the neck. The meanings become clear with the mention that Jackie pays the politicians, the reason that he can catch them by the short and curlies. This is the British version of the phrase.
Imitations of Intimations by Timoshenko Aslanides
Diomedes do it? And what songs did those
Sirens sing?’ I shout: enough! Let’s forget what
Diomedes did. Our how Thracian whores got
Orpheus by the
Short and curlies. Just what is happening now.
Why is my glass empty? Look sharp there. Fill me
Up with that red wine. How else can my skill be
Heard, If I’m not drunk?
This stanza talks about Orpheus and Diomedes in the Grecian context when the songs of Orpheus used to move the trees and flowers. However, here the poet has used this phrase for the Thracian whores in a connotative way that they caught even Orpheus by singing like him. This is a good use of connotation, a literary device, which shows different meanings of the phrase.
The Last Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Arthur Thompson by Reg McKay
Then he had them where he wanted them. They stood to lose their jobs, their marriages, and probably a lot more. As they say in Glasgow, he grabbed them by the short and curlies, where it hurts. But Thompson did offer regular small payments for their cooperation. While he was never slow to impose his will with the most extreme violence, he needed these guys to stay in the job where they were useful to him. Besides, with every payment they took, he gains great control as they dug themselves deeper and deeper into a compromised hole of their own making.
Freedom and Terror: Reason and Unreason in Politics by Gabriel Weimann, Abraham Kaplan
Power had always been associated with violence. Power is distinguished from influence by the severity of the sanctions it has at its disposal; bodily harm among the most severe. Metaphors for the exercise of power drawn from bodily violence abound: to put the screws on, twist one’s arm, ram down one’s throat, have under one’s thumb, have someone by the short hair (or more vulnerable parts), push him to the wall, be on his back, have the upper hand, or lay a heavy hand on him, as in the recent Scriptural idiom, “with a strong hand an overstretched arm.” Other metaphors describe the exercise of power as crushing the body: ride roughshod over, treat like dirt under one’s feet, or use as a doormat.
This excerpt sheds light on the attributes of power and its rendering in different phrases. The power is also associated with the use of this phrase as it shows that it means to take somebody by their vulnerable parts. And of course, hairs or short hairs are vulnerable.
Example in Sentences
Example #1: “They can catch anyone by the short hair for their position and power. They are ruthless like that.”
Example #2: They have never thought of catching anybody like by the short hair and using them to their own advantage. They use their authority with integrity and kindness.”
Example #3: “He was just like Hitler and he caught people by their short hairs and spared no one.”
Example #4: “The soldiers caught them by the short hairs and flung them into the open, deep pit. By the end of the war, the pit was filled with bodies.”
Example #5: “They have never caught him by his short hairs, let alone using any other means. He had a reputation for coming out clean every time.”