Short Hairs – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to tell someone that you have them caught between and rock and a hard place? You could say that you have them by “the short hairs.” Let’s unpack the meaning and origin of this expression.


The original meaning of the phrase was to be caught red-handed. However, this meaning changed over time. How, if you have someone by “the short hairs,” it means that you have leverage over them, and they will do as you ask.

They may not agree with you or want to complete the task at hand, but they will do so because you asked, and you have that leverage hanging over them, forcing them to do it.

Example Usage

“I’ve got Tommy by the short hairs now; there’s no way he can escape. He’ll have to do everything I say.”

“The boss really has me by the short hairs on this one. It was a blatant policy violation, and he has my career in his hands on this one.”

“Karen really has me by the short hairs after she caught me drinking again. She says if she finds me doing it one more time, she’s filing for divorce.”

“Putin has the US by the short hairs at the moment. They can’t sanction the oil and gas flows to Europe, or the prices will skyrocket.”


The origin of the saying, “short hairs,” comes from the expression, “by the short hairs.” The first written appearance of the phrase appears in “The Drums of the Fore and Aft,” by Rudyard Kipling, and one of his “Indian Tales,” published in 1890. The book covers the occupation of the British in India.

“They’ll shout and carry on like this for five minutes. Then they’ll rush in, and then we’ve got ’em by the short hairs!”

This meaning of the expression lasted until sometime in the 1930s. Dorothy L. Sayers also used the phrase in several of her books. She would eventually publish the saying in its more modern version in her book, “Doctors in Case,” in 1930.

“She’s evidently got her husband by the short hairs.”

The English military would put a vulgar twist on the phrase, altering it to “the short and curlies” as a reference to grabbing someone by the pubic hair around the groin. This version first appears in Eric Partridge’s “A dictionary of forces’ slang 1939–45,” published in 1948.

Short and curlies, the short hairs, in the phrase ‘He got me by the short and curlies’ – he caught me out properly.”

Phrases Similar to Short Hairs

  • Waiting on my hand and foot.
  • No escape.
  • At your whim.

Phrases Opposite to Short Hairs

  • No control.
  • No evidence.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Short hairs.
  • By the short hairs.

Ways People May Say Short Hairs Incorrectly

Some people may use the phrase to describe short hair or get a short haircut. This idiomatic expression has nothing to do with the length of your hair or others people’s hair. It’s a way of saying you have control over another person’s actions because you have some leverage over them.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Short Hairs

You can use the phrase “short hairs” when you’re trying to tell someone you have them in a situation where they have no choice but to comply with your requests. You can use the saying when referring to your actions or someone else’s. At work, you could use the phrase to tell your salespeople how you have the manager by “the short hairs” to show how you have control over them. At home, you could say you have your friends by the short hairs because they owe you a favor, and you can cash it in at any time.

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