"lord! he looks like a strained hair in a can!"
November 21, 2018 7:26 AM   Subscribe

In Georgette Heyer's The Toll-Gate (1954), someone very beat-up is referred to as looking "like a strained hair in a can." I think I understand the meaning from context, but I'd also like to understand the reference.

This Regency-set novel is wall-to-wall slang, notable even by Heyer's standard, but this turn of prhase is the one that's still nagging in my mind. Here's the passage, in which a servant describes someone who looks awful after a fight:

"[...] and as for Gunn, which Coate says fought off these foot-pads, lord! he looks like a strained hair in a can! I don't know whether it was foot-pads which gave it to him, but he's had a proper melting, that's sure! One of his knees is swole up like a bolster, and he can't hardly walk on it, and he's took a crack on the noddle that's made him as dizzy as a goose."

Searching Google for "strained hair in a can" nets me the texts of this and another Heyer novel, as well as the inclusion of the phrase in lists of English proverbs.

How am I supposed to be thinking of "a strained hair in a can"? I get that it might look forlorn or pitiful or generically bad, but what is a hair doing in a can, anyway? Is there a less literal meaning to "hair" or "can" that makes more sense, or some British or historical context that could clue me in?
posted by mixedmetaphors to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Absolute shot in the dark here (and searching this doesn't net any meaningful literary results to me at least) but perhaps it makes somewhat more sense as "hare"? I'm finding results for canned rabbit and hare broth...
posted by mireille at 9:10 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding the idea that this could be a reference to potted or jugged hare (cw: pictures of said hare) which often doesn't hold its shape terribly well and comes out looking only vaguely hare-shaped and therefore rather a fright. It's a pretty good description of someone who's been through the wringer (as it were).
posted by halation at 9:25 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

The proverb dictionaries trace it to Cheshire, U.K., but all I have seen that talk about the meaning, like this one, term it a mystery.

The potted or jugged hare idea might be on the right track?
posted by gudrun at 9:43 AM on November 21, 2018

Not sure if this is applicable but the phrase "strained hair" shows up once in the Oxford English Dictionary (PS: I do love that one of the Seattle Public Library's resources is online access to the OED) in a citation for a secondary, slang definition for the word "aggravator", as "A greased lock of hair, esp. one worn over the temple or forehead":
Frank Fowler · Southern lights and shadows: brief notes of three years' experience of social, literary and political life in Australia · 1859.

"The ladies..are addicted to..strained hair, embellished with two or three C's—aggravators they call 'em—running over the temple."
Not sure how this kind of "strained hair" could or would be in a can, though. Also, I found no results for "hair in a can", "hare in a can", or "strained hare" in my OED searches.
posted by mhum at 11:40 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Googling “strained hair” led me to a site that looks like it might have a German origin (Schwarzkopf.international), which led me to the phrase “strapaziertes haar,” which seems to be pretty common. My German is terrible, and it doesn’t directly translate as “strained,” but using google image for that, it looks like teased hair. I could see teased hair being described as strained. This is so much a guess, I’m not even sure I should post it, but maybe it will help someone else come closer.
No idea on the can part.
posted by FencingGal at 4:38 PM on November 21, 2018

After going through the different proverbs books listed on Google Books, a few things jump out to me. First, this particular phrase is repeatedly attributed quite specifically to Cheshire or county Chester, not to England in general. The particular regionalism might make it even harder to pin down what this means and where it came from.

Secondly, despite appearing in numerous books which list proverbs, a definition of this phrase is usually omitted, even as definitions are given for other proverbs. In Bygone Cheshire (William Andrews, 1895, pg. 201), it is listed as:
There is somewhat mystery associated with the expression :--
"To look a strained hair in a can"
with no further elaboration. Similarly, in Cheshire Gleanings (William Edward Armytage Axon, 1884, pg. 247), the author just throws out:
There is perhaps a recondite meaning in "To look a strained hair in a can."
also with no further attempt at elaboration. In most books however, the phrase is simply listed with no remarks whatsoever; either the authors didn't know or found it sufficiently self-evident as to forgo explanation.

Two sources attempt to actually define what it means. In Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors (P.R. Wilkinson, 2003), the definition is given as:
look like a strained hair in a can Look thin, 'washed-out'.
However, in Cheshire proverbs and other sayings and rhymes connected with the city and county palatine of Chester. (Joseph C. Bridge, 1917, pg. 140), a more detailed but different explanation is given:
To look a strained hair in a can.
To a nicety. To be over particular.
"To a hair's breadth."

After the milk as been "seived" he must be a very particular person who objects to a solitary hair that he may find there. The sieve is generally called a "sighe" or "seiche," and farmers say "sigh the milk."

Welsh :-- Hollti blewyn yn bedair.
Splitting a hair in four.
Going to extremes. Mont. Coll. XI.

Ray [ed note - another proverbs collection] has :-- "To look like a strained hair in a can"; but I believe this to be incorrect.
This definition also apparently differs from Heyer's usage.
posted by mhum at 5:15 PM on November 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

Thank you all for the ideas, possibilities, and further research!
posted by mixedmetaphors at 11:55 AM on November 27, 2018

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