Hair Terminology: How To Tell Your Barber Exactly What You Want

The starting-point of a good haircut is knowing what you want. Getting the cut you want – and therefore: leaving with the look you wanted – depends on effective communication between you and your barber or stylist. A good-looking cut begins before execution. Our counsel is of lesser importance if you are in a committed LTR with your stylist. But trying a new barber, or departing from your usual look, is a bit like going to bed for the first time with someone new: there’s general agreement about what’s going to happen, but an uncertain degree of consensus about how it’s going to happen, and what the limits are.


Bring a Reference Image

Simplify communication by having with you a reference image. Showing your stylist a still-image of your intended goal and target-result does not obviate the need for good-communication, but it is an excellent first-step in the right direction.

* We do not recommend showing a new partner a still-image of your intended goal and target-result. If you do so, please let us know how that worked-out.


What Not to Cut, What Not to Do

Boundaries and limits — and here the analogy with sex is obvious and on-point.  If you have provided your stylist with a visual reference, and you’re aiming for exactly that look, then it is best not to confuse things by over-explaining. In many cases, men will want this look, but… In all cases apart from the 1:1 replication of an exact style, make explicit what isn’t being done. Express these as polite, unambiguous directives: do not cut the bangs, do not remove the sideburns (etc).  We speak, now, from more experience than we wish we had. Start with the nos and don’ts, and then get to the dos.

If your barber doesn’t seem interested in listening to you: run. Sometimes the best haircut begins when you have the confidence to walk-away from a potentially bad haircut.


How Short is Short?

Words like ‘short’ and ‘long,’ and qualifiers like ‘a bit’ are inherently imprecise. An expert will know this, and as a rule will proceed with caution — less short than you asked for, sections left longer than you intended.  He can make another pass with the trimmers, but cannot restore what’s been chopped. Don’t count on every stylist being circumspect, though. If you know that you want “a half an inch” trimmed, then say “half an inch” (etc.).  If you cannot put things in precise terms, insist that the stylist makes incremental changes.


Taper and Fade

A taper means that your hair length becomes shorter gradually from the top of your head down to the nape of your neck.  It is similar to – but apparently: not identical to – a fade. A fade is when the length of your hair gradually fades from one length to the other. This is generally achieved with clippers, which are often fitted with guards set to various lengths. It is our experience that a smart-looking taper is achieved  by the deft use of shears — rendered by a master, a taper is a wonderful look to wear and a mesmerizing  process to witness.

* See this article about the difference between a taper and a fade.




The Neckline


Hair Terminology - The Neckline

The kind of neckline you choose will determine strongly the overall look and effect of your hairstyle. The Art of Manliness explains necklines in terms of blocked, rounded, and tapered.

  • A blocked neckline cuts a straight, sharp line across the natural neckline. A blocked neckline can make one’s neck look wider.  Clean and tidy day-one, this graceless imposition of a line of latitude across your neck doesn’t last. This follicular DMZ gives way when your hair starts to grow back, and frequent touch-ups are required to maintain the look.
  • A rounded neckline is just like a blocked neckline, minus the corners. This too will look untidy – or at least: less than salon-fresh – once your hair begins to grow back.
  • A tapered neckline follows your natural neckline, and gets shorter en route to the back of your head/crown. It remains blended and relatively neat even as your hair grows-in.


Depending on the kind of hair you naturally have – thick, thin, curly – you may wish to tell your barber how to texturize your hair.

  • If you want added-volume, ask for a choppy texture. The stylist achieves this by point-cutting: the hair is cut  at different lengths, and at a 45-degree angle.
  • If you have really curly hair and want something more manageable (and perhaps slightly edgy), ask for razored texture. This will help your hair lay flatter on your head, and can help reduce your hair’s natural bulk.
  • If you ask for a layered texture, you are asking for hair of varying lengths. Most commonly, this allows longer hair to resting atop shorter hair. Layers give any haircut an appearance of depth, volume, and richness.
  • If you have thick hair, and wish to reduce its net volume (but: you do not want your hair razored flat), ask your stylist to thin out your hair. Using thinning shears, the stylist will selectively cut some strands while leaving others. Think of it as a pruning.


Originally christened Burnsides, these are key components of many hairstyles. Be sure to communicate clearly and explicitly what you wish your stylist to do (or not to do) with your sideburns. The phrases top of the ear, mid-ear, or the bottom of the ear refer to where the sideburn ends — that is: how low it extends.  You can tell your barber to maintain the current length of the sideburns but clean them up or thin them out.


Your Hair and Your Desired Hairstyle

Take into full consideration the locks you’re working with. This is especially important if you’re not bringing to the stylist an image of the haircut you want. If you are seeking advice from your stylist, and cooperating on finding a new style, let your barber know specific characteristics of your hair. She or he will, in due course, discover these; but you can facilitate the process by acknowledging  that you know you have (e.g.) a receding hairline, a cowlick, or a double crown. If you intend to keep or to grow facial hair, let your stylist know. It might be helpful, too, to tell your stylist how long it’s been since your last haircut. A seasoned stylist or barber will want to know, and should ask you not long after you’ve taken a seat in the chair. If he doesn’t, or if she doesn’t seem interested in hearing what you have to say: run. Sometimes the best haircut begins when you have the confidence to walk-away from a potential bad haircut.


Here are some very popular cuts, most of which have been around for a while and have specific names. These are not the freshest and most recent photos. We have selected them because they are highly-representative, and attached to the heads of some stellar looking gents.

Buzz Cut

Hair Terminology - Buzz-cut

The buzz cut is a generic term for a short, buzzed haircut, and is commonly known as a military cut. There are several kinds of buzz cuts, most commonly distinguished by the blade or guard that’s attached to the clippers. You can ask for anything from a super short buzz cut (a.k.a. an induction cut, blade #0-#1) to a longer buzz cut (a.k.a. a butch cut, blade #4 or longer). To be safe, identify the length you want by blade number instead of by name to avoid any confusion.

Crew Cut

Hair Terminology - Crew Cut

A crew cut is cut with a clipper taper on the sides and back of the head. The top is either clipped evenly or tapered so that the front is slightly longer than the back.

Ivy League

Hair Terminology - Ivy League

An Ivy league is similar to a crew cut, but several blade numbers longer. Some barbers will even use scissors for the top of the head instead of clippers. You can also refer to this cut as a Harvard, Princeton Clip, or Brown.


Hair Terminology - Businessman

The Businessman is another simple taper haircut, in which the top is left up to 2 inches long, depending on your personal preference. The sides and back are tapered with scissors, typically. You can also refer to this cut as a simple taper haircut.

Caesar Cut

Hair terminology - Caesar Cut

The Caesar cut can be tapered on the sides and back or left without a taper, depending on your preference. The distinguishing feature of this cut is that the top is cut to about an inch longer than the rest of the hair so you are left with a slight fringe on the forehead.

Fade Cut

Hair terminology - Fade cut

The fade cut consists of a simple taper on the sides and back, typically done with clippers. The hair is clipped in such a way that it appears to “fade” or “disappear” into the skin, thus giving the cut its name. You can ask for your fade to end/disappear high on the sides and back (“high fade”), low (“low fade”), or at the temples (“temple/Brooklyn fade”).

Comb Over Fade

Hair terminology - comb over fade

The comb over fade consists of longer hair on the top of the head which is combed over into a side part or slicked back, depending on your preference. The hair on the back and sides is kept short with a gradual fade transition. The comb over variation is popular with older gentlemen, especially those that may be beginning to show signs of hair loss. Edgy younger men are trying out the comb over these days too, but slicked back is generally still most popular.

High and Tight

Hair terminology - high and tight

A popular variation of the fade cut, a high and tight is typically classified by keeping the sides and back as short as possible/as short as you are comfortable going, and fading the hair shorter and shorter into the nape of the neck and sideburns. The top of the hair is kept about an inch and a half (or longer for a modern twist) long with blunt edges. One of the reasons this cut is so popular is because it requires very little maintenance at all.


Hair terminology - undercut

The undercut is a very popular haircut in which the hair on the sides and back is clipped short with the same blade number (no taper), and the hair on top is left much longer, resulting in sharp angles and volume. The hair on the top can then be swept, slicked, and styled however you like. A very popular style for this cut is the pompadour, or “James Dean,” a tutorial for which can be found here.  Another variant is the quiff, which is best described as a fusino of a mohawk and a pompadour.  The side of the head is shaved and the middle is slicked and stood up, but not spiked.

An undercut can be as dramatic or subtle as you like, so long as the underlying principle remains: the hair on the top is long, while the sides and back are shortened.

Square/Flair/Shape Up

Hair terminology - square/flair

A square cut is defined by its sleek, clean-cut style, and typically involves cutting a straight line across one’s hairline and maintaining clean lines throughout the sideburns and neckline. The length of the hair is typically cut to all one length. However, it is becoming increasingly popular to ask for significantly more length up top and shorter or clipped sides and back, similar to the style of an undercut. This is colloquially referred to as a “Flair” or “Shape Up,” though most barbers will still prefer technical terms over modern jargon. A square cut requires a bit more maintenance, as it cuts into and shapes the hairline–when you hair grows back, it will look uneven, so you need to touch up the cut more frequently.


Hair terminology - Asymmetrical

A touch more rock and roll than most hairstyles, the asymmetrical cut offers just the right amount of risk and reward for those daring enough to try it. When visiting your barber, you will ask for hair longer on one side of the scalp than the other. The length of your hair, the difference in length between one side and the other, and the length of your sides and back are all up to you. It just depends how bold or subtle you’d like the look to be.

Faux Hawk

faux hawk

Just in case you don’t want to give grandma a heart attack at the next family gathering, rock the faux hawk (it’s the little brother of the infamous mohawk). The sides of your hair are clipped shorter than the strip of hair on top of your head, but there isn’t a huge difference between them.  Ask your barber to trim the sides short enough until you have your desired length.  For the top, tell them to leave it long or cut it into a triangle so that it can be spiked up to a point.

Top Knot

men top knot

To achieve the top knot, the first step is to make sure that you even have enough hair to tie up in the first place.  You’ll need at least 6-10 inches of hair so expect to be growing it out for months, if needed.  Tell your barber that the hair on the sides and back of your head should be clipped and not cut with scissors.  This gives a consistent overall look that will emphasize the top knot.  The last step is just to gather up all your hair and tie it up with a hair tie.  Standard placement would be in the top center of your head.


Updated July 19, 2017. Original article and research by RJ Firchau. This edit by Eve Waites. 

Related Post

Hair Product Guide Your hair is just as much a part of your look as that tailored suit you're wearing. How you choose to style it will no doubt determine how people see ...
Product Review: Beard Care, Mustache Wax & Mo... Based in Glendora, California, Bath Sabbath is a quickly growing Etsy shop that describes itself as "Heavy Metal Bath and Body." This men's and unisex...
Building a Grooming Routine It's often easy to believe that developing a grooming ritual is feminine, or a waste of time, or both. However, that can't be farther from the truth. ...
The Grooming Guide to No Shave November No Shave November has taken the world by storm, raising awareness for cancer and encouraging us to embrace the hair that we are able to grow. Grow...
What Style of Facial Hair Fits You? Another extension of style that is often over looked is your scruffy mug. Sporting some beefy chops or an artistic mustache may be the one add-on ...

Recent Posts