iTunes users can subscribe to this podcast
Some days dealing with fools makes one want to tear one’s hair out.
Hair grows in hair follicles and hair follicles take their name from folliculus, a Latin word meaning “little bag.”
The parent word of this little bag for growing hair was follis which meant “bag” but more specifically a special kind of bag used for encouraging hot fires.
Follis in Latin referred to bellows which were effectively bags of air that could be repeatedly squeezed, resulting in a blowing of oxygen on the hot coals of a fire.
The parent word in turn, for the Latin follis, is believed to be the Indo-European root bhel which at its essence didn’t mean “bag” but meant “blow.”
So a bellows is a wind bag.
The fool who caused you to pluck angrily at your hair may have been speaking words that you felt held little meaning. Certainly that was the opinion of the Latin speakers who began referring to people as wind bags employing the Latin term follis.
Old French picked this up and the word appeared as a Middle English word fol whose earliest written record appears in 1225.
Incidentally, there is a word for being crazed enough to pull one’s own hair out; it’s trichotillomania. That’s no April fool.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.