Q&A: Moustache vs Mustache

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have a growth opportunity…

Q: I thought this week we could relate our topic to “movember” – that’s currently happening.

A: Ah yes, where men (mostly) grow out moustaches to raise money for various charities.

Q: Correct. It must be an easy month for hipsters.

A: Perhaps instead they should forgo wearing hats ironically and riding vintage bicycles for a month.

Q: No riding vintage bicycles? But how will they get to the cafe on time to start their barista shift?

A: Good point.

Q: Anyway, I’d like to talk about the word “moustache” – I’ve read in many books it written as “mustache” without the O. What’s happening there?

A: America is happening there.

Q: Not this AGAIN.

A: Yep. The original word was indeed “moustache” – from the same French spelling. It arrived in English in the 1580s, which must have been when the language went through puberty.

Q: Is there any more of an origin story?

A: Well, before it was a French word, it actually worked its way west from Italian “mostaccio” and Medieval Greek “moustakion”.

Q: Are you sure you’re not mistaken about moustakion?

A: No, it’s quite true. The old Greek word was “mystakos” – relating to the upper lip.

Q: I think I holidayed on Mystakos in my early 20s. Mainly lots of British tourists with stiff upper lips.

A: Not quite, but anyway, that’s the origin.

Q: So when did the American version turn up?

A: It was around almost immediately, but didn’t pick up steam until the 1800s, and even Merriam Webster Dictionary admits that “mustache” only really became the dominant spelling in the US in the mid 20th century – beating out “moustache” by a whisker.

Q: So all non-US places would spell it “moustache” then?

A: Correct.

Q: And another thing that comes up is whether it’s singular or plural. Thoughts?

A: Again, early on, people would talk about someone’s “moustaches” – all those hairs growing in a collective fashion. These days, the whole thing is thought of as a combined “moustache” however the Italian word “mustachios” is retained for long or elaborate examples.

Q: And that doesn’t have an O at the start?

A: Curiously, it’s “mustachios” the world over.

Q: Any other interesting origin stories in this area?

A: Sure. The “handle-bar moustache” dates from 1867 bicycle terminology. And “sideburns” were originally called “burnsides” – named in 1878 after a U.S. Army Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside who wore them that way.

Q: Well if there’s one month we can all agree they’re worthwhile, it’s this month.

A: Hair, hair!

Q: Shouldn’t that be written “hear, hear”?

A: Yes. We were trying to be clever. Anyway, did you know that the average moustache contains around 600 hairs?

Q: Ohhh, no. Any more moustache trivia?

A: Absolutely. An Indian man has been growing his moustache out since 1982. It’s 14 feet long. #truestory

Q: Imagine the mischievous twirling he could do!

A: Indeed. And did you know that the King of Hearts is the only King without a moustache?

Q: I certainly did not! I'm sure the Queen of Hearts appreciates it.

A: And finally, did you know that “pogonotomy” is just a fancy way of saying “shaving”?

Q: And here I was thinking that meant being married to more than one pogo stick at a time.

A: It might be time to get out of each other’s hair…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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