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The meaning and origin of the expression: You look as if you've been dragged through a hedge backwards

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You look as if you've been dragged through a hedge backwards

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Said to someone who is unkempt and whose hair needs brushing.


I'm fairly confident that this expression is of English colloquial origin. The earliest citation of it that I know of is from a no less august arcadian source than The Hereford Journal, February 1857, in a report of a poultry show:

Dragged through a hedge backwardsIn the class for any distinct breed came a pen of those curious birds the silk fowls, shown by Mr. Churchill, and a pen of those not less curious the frizzled fowls, sent by the same gentleman, looking as if they had been drawn through a hedge backwards..

In my childhood in England in the 1950s the phrase was often, in fact inevitably, used whenever someone's hair needed combing (and as you can see from my photo below it's not a phrase that's likely to be directed at me these days). It became rather antiquated middle-class speak and had almost died out by the 1970s.

dragged through a hedge backwardsRecently, the unkempt hair and advocation of eating food from hedgerows of the English cook and food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (and with a name like that he would surely have to be English) has led to a resurgence of use of the phrase in reviews of his work. As he himself has said:

"If I had a pound for every reviewer who said I looked as if I'd been dragged through a hedge backwards, I'd have, ooh, about 17 quid minimum. Actually, I have never been dragged through a hedge, backwards or forwards."

The said cook may not have been through a hedge but people in earlier years certainly did. The Westmorland Gazette, December 1826, has a story of a young huntsman who managed to shoot himself while pushing through a hedge:

It is supposed from the position in which the body was found, that the unfortunate young man was endeavouring to make his way through a bushy hedge backwards, and, in drawing the gun after him, the trigger caught a twig...

In addition to referring to an actual practise, the 'backwards' in this expression is an intensifier: 'dragged through a hedge' doesn't have such good imagery by itself. That's unusual in itself as intensifiers, for example, 'brand spanking new', 'red hot', 'a damned fine cup of coffee', almost always come at the beginning.