This phrase means looking scruffy and unkempt, or simply feeling that way after some sort of rough ordeal.
This version of the phrase appears to be North American, but the original was “dragged through a hedge backwards” and arose in England. It’s first seen in print in The Hereford Journal, February 1857, in a report of a poultry show:
“In the class for any distinct breed came a pen of those curious birds the silk fowls, shown by Mr. Churchill, and a pen of those not less curious the frizzled fowls, sent by the same gentleman, looking as if they had been drawn through a hedge backwards.”
One American writer takes the phrase much more seriously and says, “Being pulled through a knothole backwards means going through a situation so singularly intense that many of the beliefs and assumptions we clung to before we were pulled through the knothole, simply fall away when we get to the other side of the fence. The result is often a significant transformation. It doesn’t happen to everyone, despite the fact that all of us are offered at least one natural knothole experience at midlife.”
It would be hard to make it through such a knothole with our dignity still intact. Perhaps this is because dignity isn’t quite as essential is we might think.
However, one serious use of the phrase occurred in England, in the Westmorland Gazette in December 1826, when a young huntsman managed to shoot himself while pushing through a hedge:
“It is supposed from the position in which the body was found, that the unfortunate young man was endeavouring to make his way through a bushy hedge backwards, and, in drawing the gun after him, the trigger caught a twig…”
Much later, in the 1950s in England, the phrase was inevitably used whenever someone’s hair needed combing. The same thing happened in northern Canada, where my mother was forever saying it to me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the phrase used, but recently, the messy hair of the English cook and food writer, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has led to a resurgence of use of the phrase in reviews of his work. As he himself has said:
“If I had a pound for every reviewer who said I looked as if I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, I’d have, ooh, about 17 quid minimum. Actually, I have never been dragged through a hedge, backwards or forwards.”
Forwards or backwards? The effect is much the same, but backwards sounds better and, for me, evokes the image of some poor helpless person being forcefully dragged through a tight space and ending up battered and tattered.
And I can’t understand why my mother thought that’s how I looked. After all, my hair was always in a braid. Perhaps I was worse at braiding hair than I thought.