Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Hairy Canary

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 6, 2014

If you hear of someone having a hairy canary, you can bet that they are having a temper tantrum, an emotional outburst, or find themselves in outright panic mode. It’s an expression with an interesting history that winds its way through a number of different paths.

In North Carolina, in the Lower Hawksbill on the Northern Blue Ridge Mountains that faces the northwest (its highest elevation is 4,020 feet), there’s a climb that’s been known as the Hairy Canary since the mid-1990s. It’s nestled among other creatively named rappelling climbs such as Star Trekin’, Lost IN Space, Swing Your Phaser, and Phaser On Stun.

In 1981, Chick Corea recorded an album that was marketed under the title, “Live At Montreux” and along with Chick Corea were jazz musicians Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone), Gary Peacock (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums). It was a live recording captured on July 15, 1981 while they were performing at the Casino de Montreux at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The second cut on the album is entitled, “Hairy Canary.”

And in 1973, Mattel Inc., was granted a copyright for Hair Canary in the “Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third Series” in Volume 27, Part 1, Number 2, Section 1. It took some deep digging to find out that Mattel’s Hairy Canary was a hand-powered super stunt plane that was billed as “easy to learn” and promised to give “hours of fun.” A bit more digging after that revealed that in Volume 29 of “Design News” and Volume 16 of “Power Transmission Design” — both of which were published in 1974 — Mattel’s Hairy Canary was the subject of an article entitled, “How Would You Keep The Hairy Canary Airborne?”

The Billboard edition of June 1, 1968 wrote about Hi Lit’s new progressive rock radio station WDAS-FM in Philadelphia, PA. It was reported that eighty percent of the programming at the radio station was album cuts, and that the material ranged from Steppenwolf to the Rotary Connection through to the Chamber Brothers. All pop music was banned. Then this little extra was included in the article:

The station uses the tag line of “Hy Syski Underground.” Syski is the nickname Lit has used for years. The station has also just issued a two-page newspaper called the “Hairy Canary” featuring gossip items about progressive rock artists, and a list of the major LPs’ it will be bi-monthly in schedule.

And back in 1946, California cultivated a fine ornamental clover for gardens by the name of Hairy Canary clover. It was a deterrent to soil erosion and considered a forage crop.

But none of that explains the idiom hairy canary.

On December 19, 2013 journalist Laurie Higgins wrote at article that was posted to the Illinois Family Institute website. It was about the suspension of Phil Robertson from the popular A&E Show “Duck Dynasty” for having made some politically incorrect statements. The article was entitled, “Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson: The Hairy Canary In The Rainbow Coal Mine.”

By removing the colorful jargon, the phrase became one of a canary in the coal mine. The definition for that idiom was of someone or something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions made the person or the thing a useful early indicator of adverse conditions. Whatever happened to the person or the thing, was an early warning of approaching greater danger or trouble. Beginning in 1911, (up until 1986), canaries were used in coal mines as early warning systems for toxic gases and fumes such as coal dust, methane gas or CH4.

When the canary was off-color, the workers in the coal mine knew that trouble was brewing and alerted them to the fact that they needed to get out of the mineshaft for safety’s sake. That being said, canaries were delicate birds and therefore not as reliable as thought, which resulted in more than a few false alarms with regards to toxic conditions for miners.

It would be reasonable to believe that a canary dying while down in the coal mines might cause a certain amount of panic in miners at the time, and their wives would also be aflutter with concerns every day their husbands were working down in the coal mines. The rhyming undoubtedly is an offshoot of cockney rhyming slang and since the expression canary in the coal mine appears to have started in the UK, it makes sense that the idiom would eventually be shortened to hairy canary. The earliest reference to hairy canary, as shown earlier in this entry, was in 1968 with the 2-page newspaper courtesy of WDAS-FM in Philadelphia, and indicates that the idiom was already part of the lingo used by listeners of progressive rock stations.

It is therefore reasonable to peg the idiom hairy canary to 1960 and possibly earlier. Perhaps readers and visitors who are aware of the use of hairy canary in conversation, news articles, or books will be share links to such use.

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2 Responses to “Hairy Canary”

  1. Deb said

    We used it in Michigan in the late 60s / early 70s (I was born in 1963) to mean ‘meltdown’ or overreaction. We always assumed it was a bastardization of ‘coronary’ -a shortened version of coronary thrombosis, I guess, heart attack. We also used ‘coronary’ itself, as in ‘don’t have a coronary’ – meaning ‘calm down!’

  2. Brian said

    We used it same type reference in Southern Ontario (Toronto) as well….Don’t have a “Hairy!”

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