Beards


“You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.” — G.K. Chesterton

Beard roots

“Bizarre” is one of only three English words borrowed from Basque (the other two are “anchovy” and “Jingo”, as in “By jingo!”, which derives from Jaincoa, the Basque name for God).

Bizar is Basque for beard and seems to have acquired its current meaning as a result of swashbuckling, bearded Spanish sailors having made a powerful impression on the mostly clean-shaven French, for whom the word came to mean “to stand out in a crowd”.

Barbados is Portuguese for “bearded ones”, although this is less to do with the inhabitants than the thick vines that fringed the island’s trees.

Tragus, the dangly bit of your ear, comes from the Greek tragos meaning a male goat, because the tuft of hair there resembles a goat’s beard.

English: A European Beaver.

European Beaver

Frumbierding is an Old English word for a youth, from fruma, meaning “first”, making it literally a “first-bearder”.

Until well into the 20th century, “beaver” was the slang for what Jeremy Clarkson would now call a “beardy” (although as early as 1811, “beard-splitter” was used to describe “a man much giving to wenching”.)

Useful beards

The red harvester ant’s scientific name, Pogonomyrmex barbatus, means “bearded bearded ant”. It sports a beard-like structure of hairs called a psammophore on the underside of its head that it uses to gather small seeds, to move particles of sand during nest construction and to carry eggs (psammophore means “sand-carrier”).

Gaspard de Coligny, by the studio of Jan Anton...

Gaspard de Coligny

In the ancient world, the Greeks were renowned for their luxuriant beards, regarded as badges of maturity and wisdom (Socrates was known as “Bearded Master”).

In 16th-century France, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, leader of the Huguenots, used his beard to hold his toothpicks.

Dangerous beards

Alexander the Great is often credited with starting the fashion for soldiers shaving. He introduced it as a safety measure because many of his men died in hand-to-hand combat after their beards were grabbed by their enemies.

A century earlier, King Tarquin II (535-509 BC) thought beards were unsanitary and brought the first razor to Rome. Hadrian (76-138 AD) was the first Roman emperor to sport a beard, allegedly to hide his scarred face. Until then, a beard meant you were either in mourning or Greek.

The most treacherous beard in history was that of Austrian Hans Steininger. It was more than six feet long and he kept it rolled and stowed in a leather pouch, but in 1567 he tripped over it while running from a fire and perished.

One of the CIA’s more audacious attempts to destabilise Cuba was to put toxic thallium salts in the shoes of Fidel Castro to make his beard fall out.

Beard tax

Peter the Great (1672-1728) introduced a tax on beards in as part of his modernisation programme for Russia. On his return in 1698 from a Grand Tour of the West, where beards had become deeply un-fashionable, he shaved off his advisers’ beards himself and made those who defied the law pay a hefty fine and carry a special gold beard token.

Beard mops

According to the makers of Guinness, 163,000 pints of the “black gold” stout go missing in Britain each year, absorbed into the beards and moustaches of its drinkers. “Inter-fibre retention”, to give its full scientific name, leaves hairy Guinness consumers almost £500,000 a year out of pocket. A full beard sets them back about £23 a year; a goatee is a snip at only £9.

Female beards

English: Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos, H...

Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro

The most impressive female beard in history belonged to Queen Hapshetsut (c. 1480 BC) who proclaimed herself Pharaoh after the death of her husband, Thutmose II, and wore a long, plaited false beard as part of her royal dress. St Wilgefortis and St Paula both sprouted miraculous beards to preserve their chastity by discouraging would-be despoilers.

The current world record holder is Vivian Wheeler from Illinois, who started growing her 11in beard in 1993 after her mother’s death. “It showed me I could be proud of being me,” she said. “It made me feel like I had a chance in society.”

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