By A Hair’s Breadth Meaning
Definition: An extremely small distance or margin.
Doing something by a hair’s breadth means doing it by a narrow margin.
This phrase is commonly paired with the verbs win, lose, and escape. With these verbs, by a hair’s breadth means hardly won, hardly lost, and hardly escaped.
It can also be used to talk about distance,
- He was sitting a hair’s breadth away from me.
Origin of By A Hair’s Breadth
Breadth comes from the Old English brædu, meaning width. Hair, of course, is something ubiquitously accepted as narrow.
The two together naturally make a distance that is incredibly thin; a hair’s breadth was once, in fact, an actual unit of measurement that equaled one-forty-eighth of an inch.
Since the mid-15th century, it has been used allegorically. At first, it was almost exclusively seen in the expression hairbreadth ‘scape, meaning a narrow escape or one that very nearly didn’t happen.
In the February 1793 National Gazette we can read,
- …he related their threats against thee; thy fears; thy hair-breadth ‘scapes…
Several decades later, the phrase had begun to shift, and, in an October 1836 edition of the Richmond Enquirer, we can read a variation,
- …it is incumbent upon the Democracy to meet [their opponents] with their own weapons and to contest the political field with them, inch by inch— aye, hair breadth by hair breadth!
Examples of By A Hair’s Breadth
In the modern day, we find this phrase used mostly in the context of winning and losing.
- We won by a hair’s breadth; James scored in the last minute.
- He lost the election for governor by a hair’s breadth: only two votes.
When talking about escaping something, you might say,
- We escaped the storm by a hair’s breadth.
- The 1960 and 1968 elections were decided by a hair’s breadth; 1980 was a decisive Reagan victory. –New York Sun
- We sprint to the dressing room, throw off our Vans and put on Elizabethan boots, toss tunics straight over our Nirvana T-shirts, and run around the woods to make our entrance… I make my cue by a hair’s breadth. –The New York Times
To do something by a hair’s breadth is to make or miss something narrowly.