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Why do we call the short whiskers at the side of a man’s face sideburns?

An American general of the nineteenth century, by the name of Ambrose E. Burnside, was immediately recognizable from his mutton chop whiskers and moustache, combined with (unusually) a clean-shaven chin. Thanks to his trend-setting, and from the 1870s onwards, people were calling this style a Burnside. The whims of fashion meant that the moustache was soon dispensed with as part of the Burnside ‘look’, and the term came instead to denote the strips of hair down the side of a man’s face and in front of his ears.

Celebrity and fashion are equally fickle, however, and before long the general’s name became rather opaque to the new fashionistas of the day. The ‘side’ element at least was obvious, but where did the ‘Burn’ come in? The first change made was to reverse the two parts of the term, so that Burnside became, in the 1880s, ‘sideburns’. But this still left ‘burns’ a puzzle, and the more familiar sideboards were substituted as an alternative (in which ‘board’ simply means edge or border).

A beard, by the way, is related to the Latin word barba, hence the word ‘barber’ for a hair-cutter. And whisker comes from the idea of ‘whisking’ or touching something very lightly, for a whisk (or ‘whisker’) in the fifteenth century could be a bunch of feathers used as a brush: the touch of that would probably feel very much like whiskers on your skin.


An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent