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The Word

The mullet strategy

It's more than a bad haircut

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
April 6, 2008

He may be a new-media whiz kid, but Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of the Huffington Post website, surely enjoyed his recent old-media moment. Last month, a New Yorker story quoted Peretti on the "mullet strategy," the HuffPost's way of presenting itself: Like the mullet hairstyle, says Peretti, its look is "business up front, party in the back."

In journalistic terms, Peretti explains on his BuzzFeed.com site, where he coined the term last year, the mullet approach means Web pages that greet the arriving reader are clean and shiny, while the shaggy, unedited user-generated content is stuffed into a closet several clicks away, not visible from the front hall.

The mullet metaphor is a bit weird, for a couple of reasons. The concept itself is hardly novel; we all know "best foot forward," "first impressions matter," "you catch more flies with honey." And it's not as if the back of a mullet hairstyle is actually hidden from view. (If only!)

But catchy it is: "Mullet strategy" has a listing on Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Word Wrester site, a blog comment from the Baltimore Sun's John McIntyre, and multiple, multilingual mentions on the Web, where everyone has an opinion on the mullet, if not the mullet strategy.

And yet, the mullet's many lovers and haters - who write books, collect photos, and design websites to celebrate and mock it - have failed to answer the fundamental question: How did a hairstyle get named for a fish? The flat-top, the pageboy, the fowl-inspired ducktail - these names hide no mystery. But what's fishy about the classic Billy Ray Cyrus 'do?

OK, a mullet isn't only a fish, though that sense - dating to the 14th century - is the oldest. (More than one species has been called mullet, but taxonomic accuracy does not concern us here.) There are nine different senses of the noun in the Oxford English Dictionary - it's a star in heraldry, a bird, a regional name for a plant, and so forth. But aside from mullets meaning "tweezers" (rare, obsolete), none of them is related to hair.

And it's not till the mid-19th century that mullet showed up as US slang, in the noun mullethead ("blockhead, dope") and its adjective, mulletheaded. (The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an 1857 quote describing men as "sleepy, ignorant, mullet-headed wretches.") Another century passed before the word was shortened to plain mullet, meaning "gull, mark, loser": the slang dictionary also lists a 1959 collegiate definition of mullet as "the opposite of a B.M.O.C."

On the other side of the planet, Australians liked mullet too, coining the 1950s expression like a stunned mullet, or "stupefied." Just last month, a review of the TV series "The Tudors" in the Sydney Morning Herald referred to the "stunned mullet visage" of actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Are these slang mullets related to the fish? Burt Reynolds thinks so. In his 1994 autobiography and in several interviews, he has made the connection explicit. In his Florida high school, in the early '50s, "I used to sit on the side of the room where the greaseballs, ducktails and the guys with cigarettes sat," he told Parade magazine in 1992. "I was what they call a 'mullet,' that's a fish used for bait, mainly." But Reynolds lived in a fishing town; he might have been imagining the lexical link.

As for mullethead and mullet in the hairstyle sense, the OED's earliest citation is the Beastie Boys' 1994 song "Mullet Head," which was followed by a major feature on the hairstyle in the group's magazine, Grand Royal. But the Beasties don't treat the hairdo mullet as their coinage; the truth, if it's out there, is somewhere else.

It seems plausible enough that mullethead would spring from the same impulse that gave us muttonhead, birdbrain, and harebrain, not to mention blockhead, airhead, and numbskull. And once you're calling fools mulletheads and mullets, what could be more natural than extending the insult to their haircuts?

But the experts think the derivation of the hairy mullet is still an open question. John Algeo, a former editor of the journal American Speech, suggests some alternative theories in an essay published a few years ago at YourDictionary.com, where he notes that the OED cites a 1777 dialect dictionary entry for mull-head, "a dull, stupid fellow."

"That term may be connected with a rare and obsolete verb mull 'to dull, stupefy,' used by Shakespeare among others, or it may be related to the verb mull 'to grind to a powder, pulverize,' as in mulled wine," writes Algeo. "So the American mullethead 'fool' may be from the English dialect mull-head, blended with the fish term mullet by clang [i.e., sound] association."

But all the theories, says Algeo, remain "the rankest speculation. In fact, we do not know. Mullet is a mystery."

And that seems suitable, in a way: The persistence of the hairstyle is surely more mysterious than the origin of its name could ever be.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com

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