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shameless pleading

Cowlick

No counting that kid in 4th grade who was covered in hair and chased cars.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve always wondered about the word “cowlick” for the swirl of hair. Why “cowlick” instead of some other animal? Does it have a name in other languages? Are they equally evocative? I have a great mental picture of newborn babies being presented to cows for an inaugural hair combing — what do non-English speaking babies get? — Lisa Wright.

That’s an interesting question, but your last sentence puzzled me a bit. Aren’t most newborn babies nearly devoid of hair? And I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a English-speaking baby outside of those horrible “Look Who’s Talking” movies and the even more obnoxious E-Trade commercials. But I’m told I often take things too literally.

Onward. A “cowlick” is a lock or tuft of hair on a person’s head that doesn’t behave like the rest of the hair, refusing to lie flat and sometimes even growing in the opposite direction from the rest of the hair. Y’know, having typed that definition, I’m now wondering how long it’s going to be before Big Pharma decides that a “cowlick” is a symptom of Oppositional Follicle Disorder and starts marketing a drug to cure it. Dagnabbit, when I was a kid, we’d just slap some 10W-30 on it and be good for a month.

The first appearance of “cowlick” in print found so far was way back in 1598 (“The lockes or plaine feakes of haire called cow-lickes, are made turning vpwards”). (A “feak” is a dangling lock of hair). The cowlick is so-called because the disruptive lock is said to look as if it had been produced by a lick from a passing cow. It’s also commonly called a “calf-lick,” but in that case it may be a reference to the effects on a calf’s coat of grooming by Momma Cow. I suppose animals other than cows might lick one’s head and create a, say, “doglick” (yuck) or “tigerlick” (uh-oh). But cows are considered benevolent and safe as large animals go, so cows it was.

According to the hair websites I visited in my rigorous research, most cowlicks are a product of conflict in the “whorl,” a sort of traffic circle on top of one’s head where the hair meets and decides how to grow. In some people the whorl runs clockwise, in others counter-clockwise, and still others have two whorls which run in opposite directions, producing ginormous cowlicks and ruining their lives. Incidentally, it is very important to part your hair on the proper side so as not to create conflict atop your head. I have always parted my hair on the right, for instance, although most men part theirs on the left, and over the years many men have told me I’m doing it wrong. But I’ve never had a cowlick problem and most of those guys don’t have any hair left at all, so I guess I win.

Apparently the French term for “cowlick” is “mèche sur le front,” meaning literally “wick in the front,” though one source I found says “un épi” (“an ear of corn”) is also used. In German, it’s “ein Werbel” (“vortex” or “whirl” ), in Spanish, “chavito,” “mechon” (“tuft”) or “remolino” (“swirl”). In Danish, it’s “hvirvel i håret,” literally “whirl in the hair,” in Afrikaans, “kuif” (“crest”), and in Polish “kosmyk,” meaning “strand.” Full disclosure: several of these came from dictionaries and translation sites for languages in which I am not fluent, so there’s a good chance that I’ve missed some colorful colloquial terms every bit as weird as our “cowlick.” But I didn’t find any farm animals messing up folks’ hair in other languages.

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