To have your opponent by the “short hairs” means that you’ve got them in a tight spot, and they are at your mercy.
If you’re in the U.K., you might talk about having someone by the “short and curlies,” instead of by the short hairs. But the meaning is the same.
People often assume that the short hairs are pubic hair. In fact, the phrase originally referred to the short hairs that grow on the back of your neck.
Rudyard Kipling first used the expression in print back in 1890 in The Drums of the Fore and Aft. One of Kipling’s characters, referring to the British, says, “They’ll shout and carry on like this for five minutes. Then they’ll rush in, and then we’ve got ’em by the short hairs!”
Another novelist, John LeCarre, used the phrase in an interview about President Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin. Le Carre told NPR that Russian president Vladimir Putin had deliberately tempted and “surrounded” President Trump in order to weaken his position and put him in their power.
Le Carre said:
So I think the kompromat, if it’s taken place, has taken place very largely through Trump’s own endeavors to raise money in all sorts of dark places. And together, all those efforts amount to a self-compromising activity, which the Russians have embraced. I think they have him by the short hairs.
Most of the time, politicians do not talk publicly about the short hairs. After all, the phrase has some unsavory connotations; it’s folksy and may make a crowd laugh, but it’s not the stuff of formal speechwriting.
Lyndon Johnson’s supporters sometimes liked to joke about the president’s colorful use of language, but even in LBJ’s case, there aren’t a lot of on the record examples of the president talking about the short hairs. There are, however, many examples of people putting those words into the president’s mouth.
The historian Randall B. Woods, for example, talked about Johnson’s moral quandary during the Vietnam War:
The moral implications of preserving South Vietnam by means of a bloody, inconclusive conflict had him by the short hairs, as he would have phrased it. Frustrated, anguished, he told Robert McNamara, “Let’s get some more of something, my friend, because I’m going to have a heart attack if you don’t get me something… Let’s get somebody that wants to do something besides drop a bomb, that can go in and go after these damn fellows…
Of course, the short hairs aren’t just a big deal in politics. The term comes up in just about every corner of life – even in banking, as the New York Post demonstrated when it ran a screaming headline claiming that “Mortgage Holders Will Have Banks by the Short Hairs.”
But the most satisfying “short hairs” headline in recent years may come from the Chinese press. A lawmaker named Leung Kwok-Hung was barred from seeking re-election in 2012, thanks to a law saying that anyone who had a pending prison term could not run for office. Leung KwokHung was nicknamed “long hair,” allowing China Daily to headline its article, “Long hair caught by the short hairs for jail term.”