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Curly Nikki

Dreads or Locs? Choosing the Right Word

By January 27th, 202159 Comments
Dreads or Locs? Choosing the Right Word

by Sherrell Dorsey of Organic Beauty Vixen

It was the fall of 2005 and I was fresh off the plane in New York City ready to seize my new life as a college freshman in the Big Apple, I had so much more than freedom in the concrete jungle. I had Brooklyn. Not too keen with the transportation system I hopped the first thing smokin’ and ended up in downtown Brooklyn amongst strangers with thick accents, big buildings and music on the street that sang the soundtrack to my new life.

Walking past the many shops and shoddy sneaker stores I drunk in the artistry of hairstyles adorning the many brown beauties who held their heads as high as their heels.

“Miss, your dreads are absolutely gorgeous,” I said meekly, not completely comfortable speaking to strangers in New York without a can of mase (I knew Law & Order way too well).

“Baby, there’s nothing dreadful about my hair,” the brown-skinned woman with high-cheekbones responded brashly.

That day was a reality check for me. And after four years of rocking locs I cringe when someone pays me the exact same complement. There isn’t anything dreadful about my hair.

I’m often inundated when asked about my “dreads”. Do I correct others? Should it matter if I or anyone else for that matter uses either word. Some people get highly offended while others don’t care.

What’s your take?

Sherrell Dorsey is a natural beauty expert, writer, speaker and advocate of health, wellness and sustainability in communities of color. In addition to creating, Sherrell writes beauty articles for Tyra Banks’s beauty and fashion site, Jones Magazine, and Posh Beauty. Follow Sherrell on twitter at


  • blaque asia says:

    i use to call my hair dreadlocks when i tried to start them the first time and they didn't last. calling them dreadlocks already programed my mind to think of my hair as being "dread"ful, and that's exactly what i was trying to stay away from because having processed hair is what made my hair dreadful. i had to overstand and realize that the hair that grows from the top of my head is anything but dreadful. i've read the commencement of dreadlocks and tried to see how calling it by that is right, but i had to be true to myself and that included describing anything to do with myself, and when i talk about my hair, i am proud and honored that when another woman looks at my locs, they inspire her to want to go natural or start her own journey with locking up. so i would be doing myself a disfavor if i ever called my locs dreads ever again.

  • Bsnl broadband says:

    What to Do, What Not to Do: walk your little big words like big little doggies. Let them leap ahead on leashes of little lengthy lines. Let them piddle on your pant cuffs, dig dirty holes with howls and vowels, and bury for themselves a burly bag of bones. Let loose and lose! Win! Begin! End.

  • V says:

    =| I think dreadlocks are beautiful, I never knew of this connotation! Whenever I say dreads or dreadlocks I absolutely have never once thought of the word "dreadful" and didn't even know people didn't like calling them that… hence why I'm here. Guess I'll be more careful.

    But still, for all you loc lovers and loc wearers.. IT'S BEAUTIFUL, NOT DREADFUL! People don't mean it, they just didn't know 🙂

  • Alfina Hopkins-Wasnuk says:

    If you wear your hair natural i believe it doesn't make much difference. Just love who you are. As for the history of dreadlocs:
    Dreadlocks are associated most closely with the Rastafari movement, but people from many ethnic groups in history before them have worn dreadlocks, including many ancient Semitic and Indo-Aryan peoples of the Near East and Asia Minor, early Scottish clans, Sadhus of Nepal, India and the Sufi Rafaees, the Maori people of New Zealand, the Maasai of East Africa, and the Sufi malangs and fakirs of Pakistan. Dating as for back as 14th century.

  • Anonymous says:

    "The religious movement of Rastafari as well as reggae music made the wearing of DREADLOCKS (so called by Rastafari) popular."

  • Anonymous says:

    I don't think anyone is saying that when Rastafarians (or anyone for that matter) use the term dreadlocks, that they are being negative. Rastafarians reclaimed that term, changing its meaning for THEM. Locks were around waaaaaay before Rastafaianism. The term was ORIGINALLY meant to be derogatory. Europeans made this up because, in their opinion, our locks were dreadful. This discussion has nothing to do with Rastafarianism because Rastafarians were not around when the term, or the hairstyle, originated.

  • Dez says:

    I believe what a lot of the Americans or Non-Caribbean people are missing is that the term 'dread' means something different in the Caribbean.

    You guys can't just look in an English dictionary and assume dread is short for dreadful. Like someone said, ask a Rastafarian.

  • Anonymous says:

    The religious movement of Rastafari as well as reggae music made the wearing of DREADLOCKS (so called by Rastafari) popular. As a Jamaican, I almost feel disrespected when the movement which made the word popular is being disregarded in deciding whether or not the word should continue to be used. Rastafari, as well as Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean use the word dreadlocks. Perhaps we should, instead of looking in Wikipedia, seek information on what this word means to Rastafari, then make your desicion from there.

  • Jo Somebody says:

    'Wearing the hair like this originated with Rastafarians.' – erm, no. Locks have been around for a long, long time.

    I'd love to find an ancient word for them. People get butthurt over the word 'dread' and, presumably 'dreadlocks' and the work 'locks' just means hair.
    I wonder if it'd be offensive to Hindus to call them Jata on non-Hindus. *sigh*

  • Moonchyldcrab82 says:

    Isn't dreadlocks a compound word? Dread + Locks = Dreadlocks. Personally I don't know of any compound words made up words that don't have anything to do with the thing you're naming. So why are people finding it hard to believe that the dread in dreadlocks ORIGINALLY had a negative connotation?

  • Anonymous says:

    I seriously believe this is a beautiful example of making something out of nothing. Dreads, locs, or dreadlocks…it's all the same hairstyle and "dreadful" is not a root word in any form. Just chill people, if they say your dreads look nice, just say thank you! Simple as that, it's a compliment,just take it…

  • Anonymous says:

    I had locs for almost 4 years. Though *I* called my own hair locs, other people called them dreads, dreadlocks, etc. and I didn't trip because (just like natural hair) locs aren't really mainstream in the black community so most people aren't educated about them, including what they should or shouldn't be called.

    However, I'll never forget the one time a woman ran up to me and squealed, "I love your Sisterlocks!" Well, they were thin, but nowhere near as thin as most Sisterlocks I'd seen. Maybe because I maintained via interlatching, I guess they acted like Sisterlocks? So I said, totally without thinking: "Oh, these aren't Sisterlocks! I would never pay that kind of money for locs. Oh no." I said that before I realized that the reason she'd come to me was because she had just gotten hers installed and had assumed that's what mine were. I guess I probably shouldn't have left her standing in the parking lot with her mouth open…

    For those who are still confused, here's how you get around it: Simply say "I like your hair." Most decent people will say "Thank you" and keep it moving, although you run the risk of meeting an ultra-Afrikan, higher-level being who will cut their eyes at you because their hair is obviously so much more than a style to be admired. Yes, this happened to me too, at a convention where there weren't many black folks at all. I was hurt. In fact during the whole time I had locs I very rarely got "the nod" from other locked folks. Guess they assumed I wasn't a "real" locked person because my locs looked like Sisterlocks. I can laugh at this now because it can really get silly sometimes…

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks Nichole, Someone Said It Before I Did…Locs Did Not Pop Up In The 1960s It's Been Around Forever. Yes The Proper Name Was Never Dreadlocks It Became That After What Nichole Said. Europeans Didn't Know What To Think Of It Other Than Dreadful (Of Course They Named African Free Form Hair Other Things Too)…All Hair Is Considered Locks, Dreadlocks Was What It Eventually Became A Locs Or Locks Spelling Isn't That Important, Which I Feel Was The Proper Term. I Would Only Correct People Who Asked Me About My Hair Or Who Kept Saying Dreads To Me. If They Were Just Passing By I Didn't Bother, But I Never, Never Said It With An Attitude.


  • Tiffany says:

    Wow! I never knew there was sensivity on this. I stand corrected, but also think a sincere compliment should be welcomed.

  • Nichole says:

    the original term from 'dreadlocks' was locs. it was not until Europeans came o Africa did they start calling out hair 'dreadlocks'. Meaning that we had dreadful hair because it was not straight.

  • Paula L White says:

    The USA is a country where locks are a HAIRSTYLE, but growing up in Jamaica, locks were part of a LIFESTYLE, explicitly connected to the Rastafarian religion. You can't understand the term 'dreadlocks' unless you place within its religious context. So, here's the deal: 'dread' means to be feared which is not derogatory but complimentary. The idea is that like Samson in the bible, the locks of the Rasta man or woman makes them a powerful and mighty force to be respected and feared. Feared as in revered or deeply respected, in the same way that some people say they fear God. So, it's not 'dread' as in 'dreadful', but 'dread' as in 'feared'. I can understand not using the term here in the US because it is offensive to many, however, if you know the background, then you know that there really is nothing offensive about the term at all.

  • Kay says:

    Are you kidding me? I don't believe this should be an issue. I have always called them dreads, my West Indian fam calls them dreads and I will STILL call them dreads. People are taking things way too literal these days..IMO

  • Annabel says:

    I agree with another commenter, please put Francesca on your couch! She has gorgeous locs and is super talented.
    I just found out last year the term dread was offensive and I'm 28. So I stopped using it and now say locs. Whether the original meaning is derogatory or not, if it it's offensive to someone, I won't use it.

  • Anonymous says:

    Interesting topic! I'm a curly from Finland, and often heard "negro" as a child growing up here. It was never said in a derogatory manner, it was what people thought they should say – thats what they had been taught. Later on as a youth, people would often ask me what they should say "negro" or "black" or "African-American" or, or, or! Words! Their SO tricky :)! This experience has taught me, 1. that we should try to be considerate to others, 2. the same word in a different place takes on a totally different meaning, 3. it doesn't matter what one says, if the attitude is wrong.

    I'm a cultural anthropologist and would say that if dreadlocs are what are typically used in the Caribbean, it is correct THERE. It's a different situation than if the same word is used in the United States. I could accept that elderly finns would call me negro (though I don't care for it!), but I wouldn't put up with it in the States! 🙂

  • Alyssa says:

    I agree with Anonymous from Trinidad, I'm from Jamaica and my cousins have locs, we don't think it's derogatory to call them dreads or dreadlocks. I think it's more of an American thing to feel offended when someone refers to them as dreads or dreadlocks. Regardless, I still tell my American friends that when they encounter someone who has locs, they shouldn't call them dreads or dreadlocks unless they know that person is from the Caribbean because of the issues people in America are having with those words.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm from the Caribbean and "dread" in "dreadlocks" in no way means "dreadful". I mean, come on, who ever thought of that!!!
    In Trinidad, and I imagine it's the same in a few other islands, when we say dread, like "dat rel dread", it means "bad", in the sense of "you know I'm bad, I'm bad". And that's a far cry from "dreadful"!

  • Alia :) says:

    I had locs when I was 8 years old until I was 12 and whenever I would call them dreads my mom would say the exact same thing as the lady in the story so I have always called them locs. I find that when I tell people about how I used to have locs I would have to explain that it's another word for "dreads". I guess its more of a universally used word.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is just plain crazy and should not even be an issue. Dreadlocs or locs is the same thing. Wearing the hair like this originated with Rastafarians. It is a lifestyle and not a fashion statement. People are now locking their hair as a fashion statement and do not even know the history behind it. Growing up in the Caribbean, you couldn't have dreads and even eat chicken. If you know the full history, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Most Rastas I know call their hair dreads– which by no means is the shortened version of the word dreadful. Where do people come up with these ideologies? Making an issue out of nothing.

  • April says:

    I once was told that dreads were the ummatted free forming kind and locs were the neat, manually formulated kind. That was the difference for me. I say dreads or locs when referring to someone from afar, but talking to someone face to face I say locs or simply hair.

    That comment that Sherrell received was rude and uncalled for. Take the time to educate someone and don't pass them off for your attitude and ignorance of something they clearly don't have a great understanding of in the first place.

  • Anonymous says:

    this is so ridiculous. if "dreads v. locs" terminology is so real an issue for you [and for the woman who corrected you] then you both have way too little going in life. i'm so annoyed at topics and submissions like this, nikki! [i know, i know.. i could've simply not commented…but C'MON!]

  • kmacnme says:

    I think it's fine to choose which term you prefer. Since ppl have (or I have been) accustomed to saying dreads for so long, it's hard to make the switch. I know some that don't mind either way, and some, like you who insist on locs.
    However, I don't think it's necessary to get snappy about it when ppl are genuinely paying a compliment. It seems that a simple "I prefer the term locs" would be better received. Again, you should clarify, and it should be respected; just in a better way.

  • Anonymous says:

    From reading all of the comments i will personally have to take a look at the meaning of "dreadlocs". Since my background is Jamaican i know and use the term "dreads" or "dreadlocs", if anyone has listened to Bob Marley then you would think that dreadlocs is the correct word.I dont believe that many people know the true meaning of the word (if it does mean dreadful) and dont mean any harm when saying it therefor, their does not need to be attitude when someone says it just some educating.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have seen some locs that look dreadful. If I see locs that look like nicely kept locs, I refer to them as locs. When I see locs that look like a bunch of matted hair I call them dreads.
    Do a Google image search for dreads and then do one for locs. You will see what I mean.

    I've always just complimented people on their hair without using any term anyway. That way there is no confusion.

  • Anonymous says:

    Uggh…one more thing to complain about. I cant.

  • Anonymous says:

    When you know better you do better. I don't like the use of the word dread when referring to locs not just because of the history of locs but because I think that locs are so beautiful that calling anything about them dreadful does not makes sense coming from me. I don't think it's about being sensitive or not. It just sounds weird. I would call a lovely pair of shoes "dread shoes". I wouldn't call a gorgeous shade of red "dread red".

    There are phrases that were said when I was a kid that I didn't know the history of. Once I knew better I did better.

  • My3BoyZ says:

    I have done a small amount of research on locs/locing and found exactly what's been said above. The term "dred" was used to denigrate African textured hair as being dreadful…. I personally would only correct people nicely IF and only if I think they would understand the above explanations. Other than that, a lot of people would not/can not understand the deeper implications of the term. I will be locing later this year and as with my natural hair, I am preparing myself to deal with the onslaught of negativity.

  • Anonymous says:

    I wore locs for six years and every time someone complimented me on my dreadlocks, I would just tell them nicely that there was nothing dreadful about my locs.

  • Dez says:

    I like the discussion. I'm in the Caribbean and at least in Antigua we use both words. I've never noticed anyone having a problem with the word dreads. For that reason I wouldn't liken it to the N word since it's mostly a non-issue here.

    By the way, we also sometimes refer to friends as 'dread' when saying hi.

    To each her own I guess. If I'm outside of my region I won't refer to them as dreads now.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Bridget, No Rasta has 'reclaimed' the word dreadlocks, if you listen to any reggae song sung by a Rasta, they refer to their hair as locks or natty.

    The history in Jamaica of how Rastafarians were initally treated by the government, by the police and by the church never indicate that in this day and age they would approve of the word 'dreadlocks,' because it still has a negative connotation. They were called, 'dutty rasta,' 'dutty dread,' among other things. So culturally it is not accepted to use the word. Unless somone is using it in a derogatory way in JA, they call them Locs.

  • yumpopstar says:

    @ Anonymous 2:38
    🙂 – you're welcome !

    Luckily I had someone inform me and pass info along in a nice way !

  • Ebbie says:

    Nikki PLEASE get FranChescaleigh!!! She has two great youtube pages, a F/B, and a blog. Her hair and the amazing styles that she does are wonderful!!

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the explaination yumpopstar! Now that I know better I will do better!:)

  • Auset Abena says:

    I had locs for four years and yes, I preferred the term locs. I was told, and I don't know if it is true nor have I researched the origin, that people rocking locs in the Caribbean were described as having dreadful hair, hence the name dreadlocks. So I personally didn't call them dreadlocks and knew plenty of people with locs who didn't like the term either.

    However, I don't think it's okay to cop a quick attitude when someone calls them dreads, just correct them nicely if you don't like that term. When people called my hair dreadlocks or dreads, I wouldn't even bother correcting them, but I always referred to my hair as locs. When people asked me what I preffered, I said locs and I told them why.

    In the end, as CN said, no one is offended by the term locs, so that is the safe route. However, if you have locs, copping a quick attitude and giving people the stank face when 9 times out of 10 they don't know any better, that is kind of dreadful.

  • Anonymous says:

    ok…thanks for educating me on this! I had no idea at all that some people take offense to loc's being called "dreads"!? clueless??? I've called peoples loc's dreads before and have NEVER got that response (SAID WITH A SMILE, AND THEY CLEARLY KNEW I WAS COMPLIMENTING THEM). But now that I know some are annoyed by it, I'll be more mindful. Wow! If it isn't one thing, it's another! lol

  • yumpopstar says:

    had some typos earlier,so I deleted

    About a year ago I used the word dreadlocs in conversation with a woman whose 13 year old daughter chose to wear locs. At the time, the lady was very nice and just simply said that she didn't say dreadlocs because of the racist colonial connotation of the word. That really made me think about the etymology of the term. Since then I have consciously made an effort not to use 'dreadlocs' and I only say 'locs'. I strongly don't believe in using phrases that have such historical and racist baggage. Likewise, I would never use the n word or the word jipped, and I refer to the middle passage as the Maafa or African holocaust. I usually take a strong stance against perpetuating a negative history once I learn the etymology of a word.

  • yumpopstar says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • CURLYNIKKI says:

    Experts? Hmmm… tell me who y'all want me to consult with and I'll do my best to hunt him/her down!

  • Anonymous says:

    I never tripped on the name — just don't call them ugly or try to touch them.

  • Bridget says:

    This was very interesting. The first time I complimented someone's "dreadlocks" I was a seven years old elementary student, and got the same response. However, the tone of the response was very different. It was said with a smile and as a result, to this day, I do not refer to that style as "dreadlocks". I think if we ALL did a little more research we would learn that originally, the "dread" in "dreadlock" was, in fact, meant to be derogatory, and did stand for "dreadful". Rastafarians later reclaimed the word similarly to the way some people have reclaimed the "N" word today.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is silly to me. I don't know why we always have to make a big deal out of nothing.

  • Morgan says:

    I don't understand why people take offense. They are called DREADLOCKS. If you don't like the name that much, why bother getting them? I won't stop saying "dreads" because that is apart of the name. Unless they are sisterlocks. I love being natural, but sometimes us naturals can take things to a whole 'nother level. They're just drealocks, I dont think people who are complimenting them are giving backhanded compliments.

  • Anonymous says:

    I've always wanted to know the difference though. I just never knew who to ask, lol!

    Nikki, maybe you can call in an expert and ask them their take on it. I'm sure you have a few on call, lol.

    Neesha Cherie

  • Bootzey says:

    I personally use the term "Locs" but I don't care if someone calls them dreads or dreadlocks. Most folks just don't know better. Not that there is even a better to know.

    I have been burnt by folks who take it to the extreme, but I smile and keep it kinetic.


  • CurlyNikki says:

    I received the same response when I paid a compliment a couple of years ago.. awkward as hell! So now, I always say locs… I figure no matter the person, they won't be offended by the word 'locs'!

  • thecleanvan says:

    I'm with Rosa and Anonymous-12.56 PM. Unless the person is making a disparaging comment about them , accept the compliment and leave it at that. A brash response directed at a stranger does not help matters.

  • Anonymous says:

    clearly people need to do research before they write articles or take offense at things.

  • Hadiya says:

    I agree with @Nylse, the term 'dread' doesn't have a negative meaning to it when referring to dreadlocks, nor was it meant to be thought of as something negative. I say both, but I guess if you have a preference that's fine. I just don't think this should be taken so seriously because 'dread' and 'loc' are synonymous

  • Anonymous says:

    its sounds like all the people who have responded with the whole "nothing dreadful" comment have attitudes. Have any of them ever thought that people just may not know any better? For them to respond so "brashly" as the writer stated is ridiculous. I can understand if its an acquaintance who you have repeatedly told you dont like them being called dreads, but to "snap" on a stranger who is CLEARLY trying to pay you a compliment just speaks of bad manners and having an attitude to me. They should simply educate them they could say

    "thank you so much we dont really use dreads anymore"
    "we dont use dreads anymore but thank you"
    "I call them locs not dreads but thank you"

    "what you mean my hair? oh these are my locs, dreads is so outdated thank you so much for the compliment"

  • Anonymous says:

    Okay, why was my comment deleted (vegan babe) All I said was dreads were beautiful and that there was nothing wrong with using the word "dreads"–and my comment magically disappears =/

  • C.J. says:

    In 6th or 7th grade, I had a teacher with locs. A few students asked her questions about her "dreads" and she said the EXACT same thing as the lady you met. I've tried to call them locs ever since.

  • Akeia says:

    When I read the title I thought that it was actually gonna explain what the difference is. What is a dread and what is a loc? How do people differentiate between the two? And is dreadlocs a whole other category?

  • Rosa says:

    This is a struggle for me as well. I've had locs for 4 years and people also compliment my "dreads" and ask me questions. I usually correct friends or family members, but never strangers. People don't really mean any harm when they use it, so I just don't see the point in making an innocent comment an awkward situation.

  • LifenotesEncouragement says:

    dreads isnt short for dreadful but dreadlocks. Here's the etymology from wikipedia:
    The word is a compound word combining the words dread and locks that dates to 1960. The intent may have been to evoke the dread aroused in beholders of the hair; "dread" also has a sense of "fear of the Lord" in the Rastafari Movement, which can be partially expressed as alienation from contemporary society.
    But basically it has nothing to do with being dreadful – horrid or bad; so i think either expression is fine.

  • Veganbabe says:

    I don't see the problem with using the word "dreads". I know people have this thing where people say dreads as if saying dreadful, but I don't pay any attention to that. I'm 21 years old and I love dreads. I'm not very fond of the word "locs" I'll probably end up with them when I'm in my forties. DREADS are beautiful and in my opinion there is nothing wrong with using the word "dreads".

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