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Thursday, May 26

The origin of sideburns

All this talk about facial hair and beards, makes me think of the story behind the word sideburn. Not to sure who else knows this story, so here it is:

"Sideburns," a style of whiskers grown to cover all or part of the sides of a man's face, is a eponym, a word formed from someone's proper name, in this case that of U.S. Army General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881).

As a commander of Union troops during the American Civil War, General Burnside amassed a record that was erratic at best and often disastrous. His wartime flubs did not, however, prevent him from later serving three terms as Governor of Rhode Island and two terms as a U.S. Senator. But General Burnside is best remembered for his novel facial hair, which consisted of a full mustache and cheek whiskers over a cleanly shaven chin. This style was a marked departure from the "hot" fashion of the day, which was to shave everything except the chin whiskers, lending the wearer the look of a male goat (and which was known, logically, as a "goatee").

Since the mustache part of General Burnside's invention was nothing new, the cheek whiskers became known as "Burnside's" and enjoyed a certain vogue among men of the day. (Such lush cheek foliage had been known up until then as "muttonchops," after their resemblance to a popular cut of meat.)

But as the memory of General Burnside faded, the style became known as simply "burnsides," and soon an interesting linguistic flip-flop occurred. Because "burnsides" had become essentially meaningless, popular usage interpreted the "sides" element to mean the sides of the face, in which case "sideburns" seemed to make more sense, and by about 1887 "sideburns" was becoming the accepted name for whiskers on the side of a man's face.

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