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rat tail also rattail or rat-tail

noun [countable]

a type of hairstyle which has a long, thin strip of hair growing down the back of the neck

'The 28-year-old actor has been steadily changing up his look over the past few months. He first debuted the rattail back in March, worn in a long plait down his back.'

KIMT NEWS.com.au 16th April 2015

Though the expression rat tail might conjure up unpleasant images of dissecting small animals, you can see an example without going anywhere near a museum or biology lab. An unlikely new buzzword in the fluffy lexicon of celebrity fashion, a rat tail is something you may have already spotted on the heads of style mavericks as you wander down the high street.

the rat tail hairstyle … usually evokes a definite reaction, whether approval or disdain

A rat tail is a hairstyle, usually associated with men, which is characterized by a long, 'tail'-like length of hair growing down from the back of the head. The 'tail' is particularly prominent because the rest of the hair is shaved or cut much shorter. The tail can hang naturally, be braided, curled or even permed. The image here is just one example, but there are many, many variations on the same theme depending on the preference, age or flamboyancy of the wearer.

Predictably, the rat tail hairstyle is one of those marmite kind of concepts, a look that usually evokes a definite reaction, whether approval or disdain. Though not everyone's cup of tea (but perhaps precisely because it's likely to attract publicity), it does seem to be a fashion statement which has been embraced in the celebrity world during the past few years, notably by Argentine footballer Rodrigo Palacio, Barbadian singer Rihanna, and more recently US actor Shia LaBoeuf.

The business of styling and cutting hair is an area of the English language where it seems we're always keen to unleash our linguistic creativity, and over many decades we've built up an extensive lexicon rich in metaphor. In the 1960s, for example, we had the beehive, a woman's hairstyle where longer hair is piled up on top of the head to form a tall bun, latterly re-popularized by the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. If, like me, you were a student in the 80s, then you'll have no problem remembering the ubiquitous mullet, a bizarre male style where hair is short at the front and sides and long at the back. And then of course there's the instantly recognizable Mohican (or Mohawk in US usage), where the hair on both sides of the head is cut off leaving a wide strip in the middle which is painstakingly encouraged to stick up with some kind of hair product. The Mohican/Mohawk even has its own spin-off in the shape of the fauxhawk, where there is a strip sticking up but without the shaven sides. These are just examples, but the list goes on, with pageboys, pudding basins, flattops and skinheads … to name but a few – check out this page of the Macmillan Dictionary for other common examples.

Background – rat tail

The rat tail hairstyle first appeared in the 1980s, often associated with manga and martial arts characters such as those portrayed by Chinese actor Jet Li. After an initial craze it rapidly fell out of popularity, though has recently begun to make a comeback. It's not the first time that this combination of words has been used as a metaphor connected with hair, the expression rats' tails dating back to the early 19th century as a description of long, lank and untidy strands of hair.

The expression is modelled on earlier metaphors such as ponytail, which first appeared in the 1950s, and pigtail, which goes back even further to the mid-18th century, when it was a new fashion among soldiers and sailors.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

Would you like to use this BuzzWord article in class? Visit onestopenglish.com for tips and suggestions on how to do just that! The downloadable pdf contains reading activities, vocabulary-building exercises, and a focus on metaphors.

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This article was first published on 9th June 2015.

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