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Leiotrichous

Pronounced /laɪˈɒtrɪkəs/Help with pronunciation

Don’t expect to find this word turning up in your newspaper any day soon, as it is now rare to the point of complete disuse. It comes from Greek leios, smooth, plus trikhos, hair, hence having straight hair.

That it exists at all is due to the French naturalist Baron Jean Baptise Genevieve Marcellin Bory de Saint-Vincent, who travelled the world at the beginning of the nineteenth century studying plants. He also made a stab at classifying peoples into races. He is now hardly remembered, but in a once-influential book Homo: essai zoologique sur le genre humain, published in Paris in 1827, he attempted to classify humans with straight and wavy hair into the Leiotrichi and those with woolly or tufted hair into the Ulotrichi, with many sub-groups below these headings.

His classification was seriously studied for several decades, being quoted — for example — by Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Darwin. The adjective ulotrichous (Greek oulos, woolly), from his other main category is also rare, but the related lissotrichous, smooth-haired, is still in the vocabulary of some specialists, especially zoologists; this comes from Greek lissos, which also means smooth. A third category is that of wavy-haired or cymotrichous people (from Greek kuma, wave). These last three adjectives have been used to classify types of hair, for example in forensic identification.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 28 Oct. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-lei1.htm
Last modified: 28 October 2000.