Trimming back the etymological “mustache”

All eyes on John Bolton…’s mustache.

The former US ambassador to the UN is now Donald Trump’s third National Security Advisor. Political observers are quick to comment on Bolton’s hawkish foreign policy—and quip on his bristly whiskers.

A hawk with a mustache. (Wikimedia Commons)

The enduring style of mustache

English first grows mustache, or moustache in British English, in 1585. It’s from the French moustache, in turn from the Italian mostaccio, which could also refer to one’s face in addition to the facial hair on the upper lip.

The Italian mostaccio in part supplies mustachio, whence mustachioed, and is documented a few decades before mustache, in 1551.

We can take mostaccio back to the Latin mustacium, whose etymological follicles are the Greek μύσταξ (mustax), naming the upper lip or the hair that grows upon it—a mustache.

Some scholars, twiddling their lexical mustaches, root mustax in μάσταξ (mastax), the “jaw,” source of masticate and related to mandible and paper mache (literally “chewed” paper). Others relate it to μύλλον (mullon), “lip.”

A native Old English word for mustache was cenep, which may be related to kemp (“coarse eyebrow hairs”) and camp (“cat whiskers”), both apparently connected to the Old Norse kampr, “beard, mustache, whiskers (of a big cat).”

Milk mustache, the white film of milk left behind on the upper lip after drinking milk, is attested by 1907, with mustache of milk found yet earlier in 1872. The shortened stache (later, stash) is evidenced by the 1960s, preceded by tash in the 1890s.

In the mid-19th century, men sometimes used special cups, called mustache cups, with partial covers designed to protect their hairs while drinking.

Mustache lifters were small, wooden, rod-like implements also aiding the mustachioed gentleman while drinking or sleeping—or maybe even while advising leaders on important matters like national security.

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