Why are whiskers on men’s jowls called ‘sideburns’?

Sideburns have been cultivated for centuries – Alexander the Great is even shown with them in a Pompeii mosaic.

Why are whiskers on men’s jowls called ‘sideburns’? © Alamy

But their modern name is a tribute to the splendidly bewhiskered Ambrose Everett Burnside.

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Indiana-born Burnside was an inventor and politician who became a senior general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He enjoyed some successes but was thought by many to have been promoted beyond his abilities, and is best-known for the catastrophic defeat at Fredericksburg in 1862 and his involvement in the shambolic Battle of the Crater in 1864.

Yet, Burnside bristled with pride as an instantly recognisable figure, mostly for his distinctive style of facial hair. He grew luxuriant side whiskers joined to a moustache, but kept a clean-shaven chin.

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Such whiskers were soon dubbed ‘burnsides’ after the general, and at some point the name was reversed to give us today’s word ‘sideburns’.

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of History Revealed and answered by one of our Q&A experts, Julian Humphrys.