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Whilst reading a book about the mayors of Exeter, England, I found this sentence:

[this mayor] never did any ill to any man, nor did he put his beard to the washing
The Chronicle of Exeter 1205–1722 (Gray, Mint Press, 2005)

I have no idea what this refers to, Google hasn't come up with anything useful, so any ideas what this phrase means?

  • At a guess, it is alluding to hard work, or at least, doing something useful. – Mick Oct 25 '17 at 21:13
  • It would be helpful if you could cite the book in your question, and give a link (or a longer extract). – Mick Oct 25 '17 at 21:15
  • FYI, This question was also asked today at the Wikipedia:Reference desk/Language, and there has been some activity in response. – MetaEd Oct 25 '17 at 22:10
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I looked around a bit, then decided to change the preposition and see if that made a difference. Searching "beard for the washing" brought up a book called A Glossary by Robert Nares (1822). In it he has an entry for "HEAD":

"To give one's head for the washing. This very odd proverb... seems to imply, to yield tamely and without resistance, to give up your head as if it was only to be washed.

'I'm resolved. And so am I, and forty more good fellows, That will not give their heads for the washing, I take it.' Cupid's Revenge, iv,3.

Sometimes it is beard for the washing..."

Thanks to 1006a for the additional references:

"It looks like the "head" version is quite a bit older; it is listed in the 1660 Howell's Dictionary under "English Proverbs" (unfortunately without a gloss), and again in James Kelly's 1818 A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs, where it is grouped with the saying "He will not give his bone to the dog" and both are said to be "spoken of sturdy people, who will not readily part with their interest, or be bullied out of it."

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    +1 Great find. It looks like the "head" version is quite a bit older; it is listed in the 1660 Howell's Dictionary under "English Proverbs" (unfortunately without a gloss), and again in James Kelly's 1818 A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs, where it is (cont...) – 1006a Oct 26 '17 at 16:39
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    (...cont.) grouped with the saying "He will not give his bone to the dog" and both are said to be "spoken of sturdy people, who will not readily part with their interest, or be bullied out of it." Please feel free to include any of this in your answer (you can use the "edit" link just at the bottom left of your answer, next to "share"), or not. – 1006a Oct 26 '17 at 16:41
  • Sorry about that. I’m still getting used to how the site displays everything. For some reason, I got the avatars mixed up. I really appreciate your comments. – Kholinar Oct 30 '17 at 9:56
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I would say the suggestion here is that the mayor was never subservient to another.

To make (someones) beard:

make (one's) beard

  1. To be in a position of complete control over another person. The image here is of a barber shaving someone's beard (and thus holding a razor to that person's throat). It took some time, but I've made his beard—now, he does anything I say. -thefreedictionary.com

As the mayor never put his beard to the washing he was never in the figurative position that the person in the above reference was, of having a razor over his throat.

  • I take it that "his" here refers to "any man" and not the mayor hisself. So the mayor did no harm, nor did he threaten to harm anyone. – Phil Sweet Oct 26 '17 at 0:19

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