Headrail

Detail of the Virgin Mary (wearing a headrail) 966

If you’re familiar with sailing, snooker (billiards), or window blinds, you’ve probably heard the term headrail. On a sailing vessel, it’s the railing extending from behind the bow to behind the figurehead. In billiards, it denotes the end of the table from which play begins. For window blinds, it’s the case at the top that covers all the mechanical stuff that operates the blinds. But I’m thinking of something quite different.

The headrail I’m talking about is a garment worn by Anglo-Saxon women. No, they didn’t walk about balancing a rail on top of their heads, although that’s the first image that came to my mind. A headrail is a piece of cloth that women draped losely over their head and sometimes the shoulders to cover their hair. A ribbon or circlet about the head might hold it in place. Headrails became common after the introduction of Christianity when all women, except for young girls and some slaves, wore a head covering. Headrails are the ancestor of the wimple, a more elaborate garment that might be starched, creased, and folded to create a specific shape. Some wimples require the support of wire or wicker framing.

So why the strange name? Head makes sense, but rail? The problem lies in the translation of the Old English word to modern English. The Old English word for headrail is hēafodhrægl, a combination of hēafod, meaning head, with hrægl, meaning garment. The modern English word head derives from hēafod, but hrægl fell out of usage. The rail—a horizontal bar—with which modern English speakers are familiar derives from the Old French reille, meaning a bolt or bar. Such are the hazards of mashing various languages together.

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Posted in Weird Words
3 comments on “Headrail
  1. I definitely had the image of a rail on a woman’s head too! I love learning little tidbits like this. 🙂

  2. mpax1 says:

    I was thinking a bony protrusion, bu this makes more sense 🙂
    http://mpaxauthor.com

  3. I was wondering if the headdress had to be made from a hard material to be considered a headrail – kind of like the odd foam shapes they sometimes put inside fancy hair-dos to make the hair stand out in all those directions (think Princess Leia and Padme styles – although sometime if the person has enough hair, they just frizz it up until it’s really that big – the odd bits I pick up from having a daughter who has done hair modeling). Anyway, I’m just running at the keyboard now, but I have to say, that I’m super glad that you are back blogging and back with the cool verbiage.

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