What is a hairbag? And is it a bad thing?

Police Detective Keith Dietrich has sued New York City, alleging that he was driven into retirement because his supervisors considered him too old for the job. One piece of evidence that Dietrich put forward was that his supervisor called him a hairbag.

The term has been New York City police slang for a veteran office since at least 1958, when it was recorded in a New York Times article, which defined hairbag as “a man a long time on the police force.” An article from 1970 defined it as “a veteran patrolman, also a patrolman with backbone.”

While these two definitions are neutral, or in the case of the reference to “backbone” positive, the term has generally been a negative one. For instance, Edward Droge’s 1973 The Patrolman: A Cop’s Story says, “my partner that night, a lethargic old ‘hairbag’ (old-timer) who could not be aroused by Raquel Welch.” And William Heffernan’s 2003 novel A Time Gone By has, “Donahue was a sergeant closing in on his thirty years—an old hairbag in department lexicon, a term used to describe an aging and often useless cop who was just biding his time until he could get out.” So, Dietrich appears to be correct in his assessment that the term is an insulting one.

The origin, as with most slang terms, is uncertain. A bag is police slang for a uniform, and it seems likely that hairbag is related to that. Some have suggested that hairbag comes from pilling and general untidiness of an old, woolen uniform that hasn’t been properly maintained. That’s a plausible, if speculative, explanation.

Another suggestion that it comes from nineteenth-century firefighter slang for someone who shirked duty by going to get a haircut has no evidence to support it. In particular, there is no evidence that the term is nearly that old.

Berger, Meyer. “About New York: Violinist Whose Skill Saved Him From the Russians to Play Here—Police Cant Listed.” New York Times, 20 Oct 1958, 34.

Burnham, David. “Police (Cops?) Have Slanguage of Own.” New York Times, 15 Feb 1970, 65.

Goldstein, Joseph and Ali Watkins. “What’s a ‘Hairbag?’ $7 Million May Hinge on the Answer.” New York Times, 9 Nov 2019.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2019, s. v. hair, n.

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