cuts, cutz, kutz – what hairdressers know about English

February 13, 2009 § 2 Comments

Another interesting element to the hair salon names was the preponderance of creative orthography or spelling. I am trying to sound neutral and scholarly here, but what I mean is the deliberate mispelling of words for some kind of visual effect.

  •  Maggies hiz & her

  • Getfunkd

  • Hedz for hair

  • Envi hair & beauty

  • SHADZE Hair design

  • Creative Cutz

  • Frenz Hair design

  • Gurly Gurl hair design

  • blo

  • glo

  • Shadz hair art

  • Shyne

  • Snipz hair design

  • Modz Hair co

  • Kim’s Kuts

 The perhaps dubious qualities of the creative orthographies in the list can be analysed into a number of groups.

Group 1 -Playing around with silent letters

Okay, deleting them, actually. After all why not? They are not doing anything sound-wise, they seem to be there to help us recognise words by their shape. So they thought, when they discarded the ‘w’ from blow and glow . This would also partly explain shadz, which we will presume is intended to be read the same way as shades.

Group 2 – interchangeable graphemes

That’s a more linguistic-ky way of referring to letters. In English, sometimes the graphemes ‘i’ and ‘y’ represent the same sound. In my and mine, for example,  ‘y’ and ‘i’ are pronounced the  same way. We see this knowledge exploited in the name Shyne.  The same two graphemes can also be used to write a completely different sound which ever-confusingly can also be represented as the following underlined pairs of letters – received, meat, meet.  Our creative hairdressers have got to work with these to produce Envi.

Another pair of letters which overlap in terms of the sound they can represent in English is ‘c’ and ‘k’. When ‘k’ is not being silent it represents a sound made by raising the back of the tongue to the roof of the mouth near the back, where it is soft, and blocking  the flow of air for a while.  When ‘c’ isn’t sounding like ‘s’, it is representing the same consonant as ‘k’ – ripe for creative, no? Hence we get Kim’s Kuts. It is clear in this example that the creator wanted to make the words more symmetrical by beginning with the same letter … and why not after all the start with the same sound.

Group 3 – the good old ‘s’~’z’ alternation

This pattern is by far the most ubiquitous and receives (unfavourable) comments from a lot of people I know, not just linguists. It is also the most interesting. Let’s start off by taking a look at what sounds these letters usually represent. Usually these two graphemes represent two different but closely related sounds (but not always – come on this is English!) The internet is interactive, right? so I want you to say the word bus, but I want you to stretch out the ‘s’ sound at the end. Now without taking a breath or stopping saying bus I want you to start saying zoo but holding on the ‘z’ sound for as long as you can. So what I am asking you to do is say busssssssssssssssssssssszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzoo. Did you notice that you did not have to move your tongue to shift from ‘s’ to ‘z’, nor your jaw. Nothing in your mouth changes. Something, however kicks in down your throat. Put two fingers on your throat, right where you imagine an adam’s apple would be, or on your adam’s apple if you happen to have one. Now just do the ssssssssssszzzzzzzz bit. Can you suddenly feel a buzzing vibrating sensation in your throat when you start on the ‘z’? That’s your vocal cords vibrating.

Our ‘z’ represents a voiced consonant made in exactly the same way as ‘s’ which is voiceless, i.e., the vocal cords don’t vibrate. This is called a voicing pair. English has a lot of them ‘ ‘t’ and ‘d’ ‘f’ and ‘v’ ‘k’ and ‘g’.

So if  ‘s’ and ‘z’ represent different sounds are our hairdressers crazy to swap them round? Well, not exactly. If you look closely at the list, the ‘s’~’z’ switcheroo seems to happen at the end of words. And there is a good reason for that and it has to do with cats and dogs. Not literally, but in the way these words are pluralised.  We would all agree, I trust, that when want to refer to a quantity greater than one of a given item, say, a cat … or a dog … most of the time we just add an ‘s’ to it. But … listen closely. When we add ‘s’ to pluralise cat ‘s’ sounds like ‘s’. However, when we pluralise dog, that ‘s’ actually has the sound we usually write as ‘z’.  That is not some whacky thing about dogs, or cats, for that matter. Every native English speaker knows a rule about the sounds of the plural element, and its got to do with that voice pair thingy I was just explaining. Trying making plurals of these words:

beat and bead        pick and pig

When the words end in voiceless sounds (you can’t feel the vocal cords vibrating,) the plural element is also voiceless.

When the word ends in a voiced consonant, the plural element ends in a ‘z’ sound, we just write this as ‘s’.

This rule about the sound of the plural marker in English, is usually not part of the consiously known set of rules a speaker knows about their language, but something they instinctively apply when creating a plural. Show a native speaker a completely novel or fake word like frag and ask them to pluralise it they will automatically produced a ‘z’ pronunciation for frags. Our clever hairdressers have consciously noted this rule and ‘improved’ the spelling of heads, shades and friends  all in the name of business.  One really creative linguist/hairdresser has taken the rule one step further. If  ‘s’ can sometimes sound like ‘z’, they seemed to ask themself, why not have ‘z’ sound like ‘s’ – and Snipz Hair Design was born.

Now with the description of this spelling whackiness out of the way, what might a sociolinguist have to say about this phenomenon. Well, they might wonder if there is some kind of distribution pattern. Does creative orthography work as marketing towards a particular population?  That is, are there certain places where creative spelling is more common due to the type of people … okay let’s say class … lots of sociolinguists are obsessed with class. So I created a google map to see the geographic distribution of orthographic playfulness of hair dressers in the Wellington region. What do you think this distribution means?



By the way, if you see any good examples of playful orthography in your neck of the woods, leave them as comments on this post (click on the link under the title). You might be able to upload a photo of the signage too, hint hint.


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§ 2 Responses to cuts, cutz, kutz – what hairdressers know about English

  • Eddie Bordan says:

    There is an “alternative spelling” function at where one can see much of the creative orthography you are pointing out – but their system is apparently based on a set of replacement rules that miss the quirkiness of human salon naming.

  • martin says:

    Thanks for the heads up, Eddie. It turns out that this site generated some of the exact names on the list … so it is a worldwide salon phenomenon!

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