"Charlie Allen had his hair on fire," wrote Richard Clarke, former US counterterrorism chief, opening a chapter in his brilliantly promoted best seller, Against All Enemies.
The author is attracted to that vivid figure of speech. Appearing on TV's "Meet the Press," Clarke recalled his application of the trope to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency: "I've used the phrase in the book to describe George Tenet's warnings as `He had his hair on fire.' He was about as excited as I've ever seen him."
Democratic members of the Sept. 11 commission also seized on the colorful phrase. Jamie Gorelick, a former Clinton Justice Department appointee, said that a look at the data in the summer of 2001 "would set your hair on fire, not just George Tenet's hair on fire." Richard Ben-Veniste, a leading Democratic lawyer, cited the phrase in his March 23 questioning of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "People like Director Tenet, people like Richard Clarke, are running around, as they say, with their hair on fire." The Pentagon chief sought to place the suddenly favored phrase in perspective: "In three years since I've been back in the Pentagon, there have been people running around with their hair on fire a lot of times."
Whence this hirsute conflagration? From its context in the above usages, the meaning can be taken to be "in a state of extreme agitation," one stage above "wild-eyed" and just below "freaked out," or totally out of control.
The phrase is clearly figurative, not intended to be taken literally any more than "flipped his lid." The experience is associated with the adjective "hair-raising" but is far more emphatic. Its central semantic element is the dramatic visibility of the upset person's demeanor.
Outrageousness in describing outrage is the phrase's essence. In September 2002, when right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan launched a new magazine, The American Conservative, David Carr of The New York Times quoted Lucianne Goldberg, also a right-wing voice, as saying of Buchanan: "Amongst a certain group, Pat can do no wrong. He could appear nude, with Gloria Steinem, with his hair on fire, and they would still love him."
After the recent spate of usage, John Woestendiek of The Baltimore Sun found the phrase in James Joyce's 1939 novel Finnegans Wake: "The Flash that Flies from Vuggy's Eyes has Set Me Hair On Fire." The reporter noted that "ancient Buddhist wisdom ... holds that a person should seek enlightenment in the same way a person whose `hair is on fire' would seek water, meaning with the utmost urgency." More in line with today's sense of "highly excited," he found that in the 1986 movie Top Gun, a flight instructor says to the character played by Tom Cruise, "You're not going to be happy unless you're going Mach 2 with your hair on fire." One of the reporter's sources suggests the phrase originated in naval aviators' lingo; in that case, it would not be surprising if national security experts like Clarke and Rumsfeld were familiar with it.
However, further etymological digging by researcher Elizabeth Phillips reveals still earlier usage -- with a related meaning of "exhibiting excited enthusiasm" -- by a cantankerous conservative commentator with an abiding interest in the American language.
H.L. Mencken, in a July 27, 1931, column in The Baltimore Sun, was certain that the likely Democratic nominee for president, Franklin Roosevelt, would fail to unseat President Herbert Hoover. The Democrats, Mencken wrote, "lack a man of really heroic mold -- they have no one capable of capitalizing melodramatically [on] the popular disgust with Hoover, no one able to make the public heart leap and pant, no one sufficiently gaudy and inflammatory to set the public hair on fire."