Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Facewear #3

Facewear #3

Facial hair is an admittedly odd thing, as are the etymologies of the words we use to refer to facial hair.

The Latin word for beard, barba, is also the root for barber, & though it seems logical that the clean-shaven Romans would have labeled those bearded, pillaging tribes barbaric because of their beards, I can find no evidence. Sources connect barbarianism with foreignness, rudeness, strangeness & a lack of culture, but to my surprise, the beards of the attacking Goths, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Huns & Picts never enter the discussion.

The word mustache heralds from the French word of the same spelling & meaning. It entered English during the 1400s after making its way to French via Greek and Doric (moustakion & mystax respectively), all coming from mastax, meaning jaws, mouth, or that with which one chews. Having worn one for years, I can attest that, no matter what the Doric & Greek say, the mustache is not a very good chewing tool, but if allowed to grow long enough it can function like a whale’s baleen.

The noun goatee came to English in 1844 & was derived from the adjective goaty, meaning like a goat. Goatee is a direct comparison to the hairs on the chin of a goat.

The word sideburns was born of the unfortunate shaving decision of General Ambrose Burnsides, and appeared in English in 1887. Sideburns were called burnsides during & directly after the Civil War & mysteriously switched themselves around into sideburns twenty-some years later.

The bristles on a man’s unshaven face were referred to as stubble in English as early as 1600, but the term stubble had previously been used in English to refer to stumps of grain stalks left in the ground after reaping. The word came from the French word estuble. Its great grandmother was a Latin word meaning stick or trunk.

Recently, the word scruff is being applied to facial hair. In the late 1700s scruff referred to the nape of the neck & came from Dutch, North Frisian & Norse terms referring the withers of a horse. Those terms seem to have their source in the Old Norse word skopt, which comes back around, oddly landing closer to today’s meaning, as skopt meant the hair of the head.

Any thoughts on facial hair etymologies? Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED & Wordnik.


  1. Another fascinating post, Charlie. I'm going to copy the part about goatee to my son Joshua's friend, Dana. He named his known-around-world goat, Goatee!

  2. Hi Jean Ann,
    Great to hear from you. Goatee is a fine choice of goat moniker. May life continue to be good to you (& your goats, though they carry names other than Goatee).