English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A little off the fringe?

Q: Recently I came across an old postcard that offers advice to young men on how to choose a wife. Tip No. 3 says, “SEE that she has One Nose, One Mouth, One Tongue (a short one), One Fringe, and one only.” I am curious about this use of “fringe.” Any clues?

A: Sexism aside, how is “fringe” being used on that vintage postcard, and what’s the joke?

In searching for clues as to its origin and date, we found the card you’re probably referring to on a collectors’ site, and fortunately there are front-and-back images.

On the front side, one tip for choosing a wife suggests a reward of “£ 1000” for “a Girl who can Cook like Mother.” And the reverse side reads, “Affix Half-penny Stamp.”

Since British currency is mentioned, along with halfpenny stamps (which were used in Britain from 1870 into the mid-1930s), we know the card was printed in Britain between 90 and 150 years ago.

So “fringe” is meant in the British sense—a section of hair cut short across the forehead. In other words, what we in the US would call “bangs” (more on that later).

But why the advice to seek a wife with “One Fringe, and one only”? Our guess is that it means she shouldn’t have facial hair—that is, a second “fringe” on her upper lip or chin. Well, that’s vintage humor for you.

The hair sense of “fringe”—that is, bangs—originated in 19th-century British English and is still used in Britain today.

This sense of “fringe” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a portion of the front hair brushed forward and cut short.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an Australian newspaper in the 1860s: “There was something noble and majestic in his tall and upright form, his stately head and weather-beaten face, with its shaggy white eyebrows and the fringe of white hair that hung about his high forehead” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 1863).

The OED’s earliest examples are from the 1870s and come from England or Scotland. The first is from an advertisement in an illustrated magazine aimed at women: “Curled or waved fringes for the front hair” (the Queen, July 29, 1876).

This OED citation is from a periodical published a couple of years later: “None of that affected ‘Grecian fringe’ with which modern ‘girls of the period’ strive to hide what little forehead they possess” (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1878).

However, “fringe” was used decades earlier to mean a man’s facial hair, as in this OED citation for “Newgate fringe,” a term for a beard that survived well into the 20th century:

“I seized my best razor, and, as a great example, shaved off the whole of the Newgate fringe from under my chin!” (from a letter of Charles Dickens, Oct. 25, 1853).

This sighting, which we found in an Australian newspaper, refers to a mustache: “The mouth is large and wide; the lips are hideous, clothed with a scanty fringe of hair” (from the Empire, Sydney, July 10, 1862).

The grooming use of “fringe” is one of several senses that have developed from the original, centuries-old meaning of the word in English—an ornamental border. Etymologists say the word’s medieval ancestor is a word in colloquial Latin, frimbia, an alteration of the classical Latin fimbria (border).

The noun came into Middle English by way of Old French (frenge) and was originally spelled “frenge.” (The change in later English from “e” to “i” was normal before a soft “j”-like sound, the OED says, noting the similar cases of “hinge” and “singe.”)

When first recorded in the 14th century, “fringe” meant a narrow ribbon or band with threads attached, either dangling or gathered in tassels or twists, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is a 1327 entry in the wardrobe and household accounts of King Edward III: “14 uln. frenge, serico nigro, per uln’, 3d.” (The entry is for 14 ulns of black silk fringe at 3 pence per uln. Here “uln”—short for “ulna,” the long bone of the forearm—was an archaic unit of measurement something like the “ell,” “eln,” or “cubit,” all based on the length of a man’s arm or parts of it.)

In medieval times, a “fringe” could be used to ornament such things as garments, helmets, or a saddle, as in this example: “A sadel Þat glemed ful gayly with mony golde frenges” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a romance from the late 1300s).

In later centuries, other meanings of “fringe” developed, and they too are still in use today.

For instance, since the first half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used to mean something marginal or existing on the edge, figuratively or literally. This accounts for uses like “the fringes of Paris,” “the fringe of society,” “fringe theater,” “the fringe vote,” and so on.

And since the latter half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used for something resembling an edge or border, especially if broken or serrated, as in “a fringe of foam” on a beach or “a fringe of trees.”

Getting back to hair, we’ve written before about “bangs,” a 19th-century American noun derived from the equine term “bangtail.”

In a 2011 post, we say a “bangtail” is an animal’s tail that’s been grown long, then cut straight across horizontally and abruptly (as if with a “bang!”). The word can also be a noun for the animal itself (usually a horse), or an adjective, as in “a bangtail mare.”

The horse in question might even be pulling a surrey with fringe on top!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.