Q From Loretta O'Donnell, Australia: I’m a fan of Agatha Christie, and I have seen her use the phrase hairy at the heel several times. It sounds so terribly English, yet I am unsure what it means, or its derivation. Any reflections would be welcome.
A One example appears in a story about Ms Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot: “The Colonel delivered himself of the opinion that Godfrey Burrows was slightly hairy at the heel, a pronouncement which baffled Poirot completely.” His understandable bewilderment is a state he shares, I suspect, with most readers. Walter James Macqueen-Pope made its meaning clearer in Back Numbers in 1954, in which he described someone as “a cad, a bounder, an outsider, hairy at the heel.” Putting it simply, such a person was ill-bred.
You’re right to say it’s characteristically English, but it was a term more of clubland, the upper middle classes and the landed gentry than of people at large. It placed the speaker as much as the person being spoken about. An appearance in John Buchan’s Huntingtower of 1922 sets the linguistic and social background beautifully:
I can’t say I ever liked him, and I’ve once or twice had a row with him, for he used to bring his pals to shoot over Dalquharter and he didn’t quite play the game by me. But I know dashed little about him, for I’ve been a lot away. Bit hairy about the heels, of course. A great figure at local race-meetin’s, and used to toady old Carforth and the huntin’ crowd. He has a pretty big reputation as a sharp lawyer and some of the thick-headed lairds swear by him, but Quentin never could stick him. It’s quite likely he’s been gettin’ into Queer Street, for he was always speculatin’ in horse flesh, and I fancy he plunged a bit on the Turf.
The reference to horse racing is spot on, because the term came out of bloodstock breeding. It used to be said that it was a sign of poor breeding if a horse had too much hair about the fetlocks. It didn’t take much to shift the saying, figuratively, to humans. Of course, it applied only to thoroughbred racehorses and to humans who aspired to belong to society’s equivalent: working horses such as shires have very hairy feet, but then they’re common as muck.
The expression was rather variable, also appearing as hairy in the fetlocks, hairy round the heels, hairy-heeled, even at times simply hairy, though it doesn’t seem to be connected to any of the many other senses of that word. Dating-wise, its heyday was of the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. You can still find it on occasion, but it’s now outmoded, a term solely of elderly upper-class men remembering their youth.