What does ‘brindle’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: brindle….

Todd Haynes is an American independent film director, screenwriter, and producer. He first gained public attention in 1987 with his controversial film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which chronicled the tragic life and death of singer Karen Carpenter, using Barbie dolls as actors.

Haynes had not obtained proper licensing to use the Carpenters’ music, and as a result he was sued by Karen’s brother and partner, Richard, whom the film had portrayed in an unflattering light.

I was unaware of this backstory when I encountered a New Yorker story by John Lahr running under the headline “Todd Haynes Rewrites the Hollywood Playbook.” And the story also introduced me to a new word, brindle. Here is how Lahr used it:

Haynes, a trim, boyish fifty-eight, with disheveled brindle hair, was standing at the epicenter of his newest drama: a small corner office, whose west-facing windows looked out on skyscrapers and a sliver of the Ohio River.

Brindle, it turns out, refers to a brownish or tawny colour (usually of animal fur), with streaks of other colour. It is sometimes described as “tiger-striped”, although the brindle pattern is more subtle. The streaks of colour are irregular and usually darker than the base colour of the coat, although very dark markings can be seen on a coat that is only slightly lighter.

Back in my day, particularly when describing human hair, I think we would have used the phrase, “salt-and-pepper.” (Or was Lahr trying to make an oblique reference to Haynes having an animal-like nature?) 

In any case, use of the word dates back to the 1670s. It is a variant of Middle English brended (early 15th century), from bren meaning “brown color” (13th century), noun from past participle of brennen meaning “burn.”

The photo at the top of the post is a brindled Todd Haynes, at the Cannes Film Festival.