What Does By A Hair’s Breadth Mean?

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

Define hairsbreadthBreadth 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

Meaning of hair’s breadth

In the modern day, we find this phrase used mostly in the context of winning and losing.

For example,

  • We won by a hair’s breadth; James scored in the last minute.

-or-

  • 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.

More Examples

  • 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

Summary

To do something by a hair’s breadth is to make or miss something narrowly.

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