The Grammarphobia Blog

A hairy thought

Q: What’s the origin of the word “sideburns”? I’ve heard that a Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside, made them stylish and well known. Can this be true?

A: General Ambrose Everett Burnside, who commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac during its defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, is indeed responsible for the word “sideburns.”

He wasn’t much of a general, according to the historian Bruce Catton, but he had “what was probably the most artistic and awe-inspiring set of whiskers in all that bewhiskered Army.”

The general’s cheek whiskers became known as “Burnside’s,” then “burnsides,” and finally “sideburns” in a linguistic flip-flop, according to Evan Morris’s Word Detective website. Before then, Morris tells us, cheek whiskers had been referred to as “mutton chops” because of their resemblance to the cuts of meat.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first published reference to sideburns is in an 1887 item in the Chicago Journal: “McGarigle has his mustache and small sideburns still on.”

After the war, Burnside became Governor of Rhode Island, a U.S. Senator, and the first president of the National Rifle Association. But his most famous contribution to history may very well be his awe-inspiring mutton chops.

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