A Hidden History of Beard Terms!

2020 will be a milestone for me, as it sees the completion of my research, and the submission of my book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900, in many ways bringing an end to my project on the history of facial hair – a huge, and in many ways life-changing undertaking, which has occupied me for the past 7 years. It’s been quite a journey, covering a huge range of source material, archives all over the country, conferences, public lectures and media appearances. It’s been fantastic, both academically, and personally.

One of the absolute joys of researching this topic has been discovering the wealth of gems hidden away in archives, with fantastic stories, anecdotes or even just little insights into the lives of people in the past. As you might have noticed, blog entries have sadly suffered a bit over the past year or two, as I’ve been preoccupied with full-time teaching, research and book writing. It’s time to kick start things again and to use the blog to highlight some of this material that I haven’t been able to use in the book, but which definitely deserves to see the light of day.

So, I thought I’d use today’s post as a little teaser, by revealing some of the most unusual terms I’ve come across for beards, barbers and shaving. This a whistle-stop tour through the lexical history of facial hair.

Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 09.53.17

(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

‘Imperbicke’ – In Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary or An Interpreter of Hard English Words of 1623, ‘Imperbicke’ was defined as being ‘without a beard’ or ‘beardless’. In the early modern period, as in fact at many other points throughout history, being unable to grow a beard was often viewed negatively. In the seventeenth century, the lack of a beard suggested that a man lacked inner heat. In the humoural system of the body, beard hair was actually a waste product – a sort of exhaust gas left over from the production of sperm deep in a man’s body. Heat caused it to rise upwards, solidifying as it did, to become beard hair. So, a beard was an outward demonstration of a man’s generative power, or even virility. So, if a man could not grow a beard, it was assumed that he was lacking in sexual potency, and potentially effeminate, or at least carried more female than male characteristics. The fact that there was a specific term designated to this, shows its importance in beliefs about the body.

‘Lanuge’ – One of the most important stages in a young man’s life, and one that heralded the transition from boyhood to manhood, was the first appearance of beard hair during puberty. In Cockeram’s dictionary, again, was the word ‘lanuge’, which he defined as ‘downe, or the beard when it appears to grow’. There were other words for the first appearance of beard hair. One was ‘probarbium’, in John Barrow’s 1749, Dictionarium medicum universal. The stage of initial beard growth was also given a name: in Nathaniel Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, the fluffy-faced youngster was ‘impubescent’.

‘Barbigerous’ – various appellations have been attached to the actual wearing of beards, moustaches and whiskers. My favourite of all, again from Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum was ‘barbigerous’, making beard-wearing sound a bit violent. Beard hair itself could sometimes be referred to as ‘barb’, as in Thomas Browne’s Union Dictionary in 1800, and a bearded man could be described as ‘barbed’. These all derive from the Latin term ‘barba’, from which we also supposedly (although there is some debate) get ‘barber’. On the matter of barbers, this is how William Toone described the term in his Glossary and Etymological Dictionary of Obsolete and Uncommon Words (London: Thomas Bennett, 1832), 81-2

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Barber to shave or trim the beard. This ornament (for it was so considered when worn) was an object of great attention about three centuries ago, and was fashioned to a variety of shapes. Taylor, called the Water Poet, mentions them as cut to resemble a quickset hedge, a spade, a fork, a stiletto, a hammer &c. Much time was spent “in starching and landering” them, and such care was taken to preserve them in proper shape, that cases were put on to enclose them, which were put on at night, that they might not be disarranged by sleeping. The fashion of wearing beards declined in the reign of Charles II and was gradually discontinued. Barbers were employed to trim and adorn the beard, and so called from barba, a beard, and to barber was to shave or put the beard in order, and not to powder, as Dr Johnson suggests.

All this sounded better than John Wilkins’ rather curt dismissal of barbers in his Alphabetical Dictionary of 1668, describing them as ‘hair cutting mechanics’.

Smock-Faced – Returning to the issue of being beardless, ‘smock faced’ was a common insult term levelled at smooth-chinned men and beardless boys alike. Even after beliefs in the humours had started to decline, a lack of beard hair could raise suspicions about a man’s…manliness. In defining the term ‘beardless’, Thomas Dyche used it for “one that has no hair visible on the chin, as children, women and effeminate men”.

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Spanopogones – In the spirit of saving the best till last, this one is perhaps the most unusual term that I’ve come across. It appeared in John Barrow’s 1749 medical dictionary, and was defined as ‘persons whose beards are thin, or whose hairs fall off from their chins’. It again points to the importance of being able to grow a beard, even if you ultimately chose to shave it off. As to how it is pronounced, I am still none the wiser!

So, with the research files bulging, and lots of stuff to share, I will endeavour to be a better boy at updating the blog. Thanks to you all for not deserting me and, as ever, for so many of your kind comments about the blog, and my work.

4 thoughts on “A Hidden History of Beard Terms!

    1. Hi Gordon. Good to hear from you & congratulations on winning the case. I should just say that I’m only an historian who works on the history of facial hair between 1600-1900, and not a journalist, so I actually only wrote the blog post because of the similarities with the 19th century beard ban amongst the Dublin police officers. I think I might have been interviewed on Irish radio about it a year or two ago, but won’t probably be doing any more with it. I bet there would be lots of interest if you tweeted some of the producers on the main radio/tv news though? With best wishes, Alun

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