"Mustache" appears to be from the mid-late 16th century of French, possibly Italian/Spanish origin.

  • 1580s, from French moustache (15c.), from Italian mostaccio, from Medieval Greek moustakion.

  • Borrowed earlier (1550s) as mostacchi, from the Italian word or its Spanish derivative mostacho. The plural form of this, mustachios, lingers in English. (Etymonline)

One can reasonably assume that mustaches were commonly worn also before the 16th century as the following source shows:

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Jan. 1st, 1535 - Henry VIII

"In Enland Henry VIII brought back the beard and mustache look. Men wore whatever length and style that suited them".


What was the common Middle English term for mustache and why was it replaced? Was mustache used in some literary work that made it popular for instance?

  • 3
    In fact mustaches were rare in western Europe in the middle ages and renaissance down to the 15th century; the only portrait from the period I can think of which depicts a mustache unaccompanied by a beard is that of Vlad the Impaler, who reigned beyond the pale of Catholic Christianity. Aug 22, 2017 at 23:50
  • 8
    In the Bayeux Tapestry, King Harold and his knights are shown with moustaches while the Normans are clean-shaven. Aug 23, 2017 at 7:58
  • 2
    The Old English Translator (oldenglishtranslator.co.uk) gives "granu", but I have never seen anything like that, nor the Dutch "snor", Norse "bart" or German "Schnurrbart" used in English...
    – Grimxn
    Aug 23, 2017 at 8:24
  • they probably referred to it as a catapillar.
    – tox123
    Aug 24, 2017 at 0:16

3 Answers 3


The most likely answer to the first question is that one would simply refer to the facial hair above the upper lip as a kind of beard.

An early attestation in OED under "mustachio" from 1551 -- in fact, the earliest attestation of either "mustachio," "mustache," or any variants, explicitly denotes the word this way.

1551 They suffer their mostacchi to growe a quarter of a yarde longer than their beardes. [margin] Mostacchi is the berde of the vpper lyppe.

  • William Thomas · G. Barbaro's Trav. Persia

"Beard" is attested as early as circa 825, making it a much earlier term than "mustache."

Using the word "beard" to refer to a mustache didn't disappear either. This citation from 1760 poses an example of such a use, even though the word mustache would have been well-established by the time of its writing.

1760: [The Britons] shaved the beard on the chin; that on the upper lip was suffered to remain.

  • Edmund Burke · An essay towards an abridgment of the English history · 1760.

As to why the word "mustache" made its rise in the 16th century, I can only speculate. I have no reason to believe the word grew out of any particularly notable use, like that of Shakespeare in 1598.

It will please his Grace..sometime to..dallie with my excrement, with my mustachie

It would be another notch on a very long belt.


The Middle English Dictionary, in its entry for hēr (n.) ("hair") lists "hereliste" as a compound meaning mustache, as used in this quote:

Iowe, temples, et iernoun -- Cheke, thonewonges, and hereliste.

(The quote is from Nominale siue Verbale in Gallicis cum expositione eiusdem in Anglicis (1350) which I think translates to "Nominal or verbal in French with an exposition of the same in English". Full thing can be read in this paper, which is unfortunately paywalled.)

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any other instances of this word (due to its absence in OED, how many different ways it could be spelled, false positives while searching, etc).

  • 2
    The text of Skeat's paper on Nominale sive Verbale is available in a rather poorly-OCR'd version on archive.org. I rather think the OCR errors make this transcription less than helpful as a source for Middle English.
    – Andrew Leach
    Aug 23, 2017 at 9:09
  • 3
    @AndrewLeach: If you click "see other formats", you can view a scanned version: archive.org/details/transactionsphi17britgoog
    – herisson
    Aug 23, 2017 at 18:55

In Anglo-Saxon there was a word "cenep" or "kenep"(OE dict)(Wiktionary) that became "kemp" in Modern English. It meant moustache, and kept that meaning into Middle English, where it also picked up the meaning "rough hair".

It is said that Leofgar, personal priest to Earl Harold Godwinson "werede his kenepas on his preosthade" (wore his moustache during his priesthood, as a sign of his warrior nature) The Bayeux tapestry attests that the Saxons warriors wore moustaches at this time.

The word "camp", in the sense "effeminate", is a Polari slang derived from cenep. It is a bit of ironic slang, the word meaning "hairy, rough, manly" being reversed to mean "smooth, womanly".

As for why it was replaced, that is speculation. A quick glance around shows that while beards with moustache were in fashion in the 16th and 17th century, few men wore only a moustache. Perhaps then the bare chin with hairy upper-lip look seemed very foreign. If there was a Spanish word for this foreign fashion, it could well replace a rarely used, old fashioned English one.

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