Mullet the Mystery
Professor Emeritus of English
University of Georgia
English has several different words mullet, with distinct meanings and etymologies. The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for seven
nouns with nine senses and one verb of that form. To those ten meanings of mullet, two more have recently been added that are not yet recorded in dictionaries but have been
the subject of articles in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and are the
focus of a number of energetically competing World Wide Web sites (mulletjunky.com; MulletLovers.com; mulletmadness.com; and others) as well as a recent book, The Mullet: Hairstyle of the Gods, by Mark Larson and Barney
Hoskyns (Bloomsbury, 2000).
uses of mullet are for (1) "a hairstyle with the hair cut short on the sides and in the front, but long and flowing down the back neck" and (2) "someone wearing his (usually its
a male) hair in that style." The style is associated with trailer parks, six packs of beer, a package of unfiltered cigarettes tucked in the rolled-up sleeve of a T-shirt,
country- western music, chicken-fried steak, pick-up trucks with deer rifles across the rear window, motorcycles, and NASCAR. Those who sport
or have sported the mullet include Michael Bolton, Billy Ray Cyrus (singer of
the memorable "Achy Breaky Heart"), Larry Fortensky (Liz Taylors husband number 9), Mel Gibson, Hulk Hogan, Brad
Pitt, and David Spade, star of the recent movie Joe Dirt, in which the mullet
"do" is a plot element.
Other names reported for the "do" include ape drape, b and t (bridge and tunnel), Canadian passport, country singer, hockey head, Kentucky
waterfall, Missouri compromise, mud flap, short-long, Tennessee top hat, 10/90 (the proportion of hair between front and back), and
two-haircuts-in-one. Some of those terms are suggestive of the hairdos appearance, but the most frequent name is mullet.
Where does the name of the mullet hairdo come from? And why? Those are questions so far without reliable answers. In an amazon.com editorial review of The Mullet: Hairstyle of the Gods, an act of naming is reported:
"Theres nothing quite as bad as a bad haircut. And perhaps the worst of all is the cut we call the mullet. So wrote the Beastie Boys in Grand Royal magazine, coining a phrase
that has now entered into the pop culture lexicon."
Whoever may have given the name, the questions remain of where it comes from and why it was applied. Of the OEDs seven nouns, it seems highly probable that the hair style
derives its name from the mullet fish: "any fish of the families Mullidæ, or red mullets, and Mugilidæ, or grey mullets" (OED) The or "any of a family (Mugilidae) of valuable chiefly marine food fishes with an elongate rather stout body"
(yourDictionary.com), a sense attested in English since 1440. Encyclopædia Britannica (CD edition) reports that mullets "generally inhabit salt water or brackish
water and frequent shallow, inshore areas, commonly grubbing about in the sand or mud for microscopic plants, small animals, and other food. They are silvery fishes . . . with
large scales; relatively stocky, cigar-shaped bodies; forked tails; and two distinct dorsal fins . . . . Many have strong, gizzard-like stomachs . . . ."
Apart from any fancied analogies between the mullet fish of the EBs description and the physiognomy or behavioral patterns of mullet wearers of the hairdo, it is possible
that the typical outward flaring of the hair on either side of the back neck was seen as analogous to the "forked tails" of the fish. But there is another possibility.
A perhaps related term in America is mullet or mullethead meaning "fool, blockhead, numskull, foolish person." It is recorded in Jonathan E. Lighters Random House Historical Dictionary of
American Slang, along with the related adjective mulletheaded. According to the OED, in America, a "freshwater fish with a large flat head" is called a
mullethead. The OED illustrates the term with the following citations:
- 1866 Harpers Magazine Sept. 537/1 Dat fish is a mullet-head; it haint got any brains.
- 1873 J. H. Beadle Undeveloped West v. 102 There is a fish called the mullethead, that cannot be intoxicated by any amount of liquor.
- 1893 W. Forbes-Mitchell Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny vi. 110 That fish, my son, is called a mullet-head: it has got no brains.
It might seem that mullethead "fool" came from mullethead "fish" (since the naming of human beings characterized by their behavior according to a metaphorical
resemblance with animals is common). But mulletheaded "foolish" is recorded from 1857, seven years before mullethead "fish": "The men, for the most part sleepy,
ignorant, mullet-headed looking wretches"; so it is not clear whether the fool was named for the fish, or the fish for the fool.
To further complicate matters, in connection with the American mullethead "stupid person," the OED reports that Joseph Wrights English Dialect Dictionary
records 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. So the American mullethead "fool" may be from the English dialect
mull-head, blended with the fish term mullet by clang association.
Everything suggested here about the origin of mullet and its related, or at least similar, terms is the rankest speculation. In fact, we do not know. Mullet is a