I read that beard can mean something like "confront someone".. When did a word that means a little facial hair turn into a hostile verb?
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According to the online etymology dictionary, the sense of the word beard meaning to "confront boldly" is from Middle English phrases such as rennen in berd "oppose openly" (c.1200), reproven in the berd "to rebuke directly and personally" (c.1400), which is the same notion as the modern slang, to get in (someone's) face.
An example of the alternative usage of the word "beard" can be found in the book, Dying Testimonies of Saved and Unsaved. The book was authored and entered in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington, 1898, by S.B. Shaw. Including the dying accounts of many others, Shaw also details the death of Martin Luther, the great theologian and extraordinary reformer of the Christian faith. His professed and published tenants were directly responsible for the establishment of the Protestant faith. Thereupon at severe odds with the Catholic Church leadership, his life was in constant danger. Years of hiding and stress may have been related to a myriad of illnesses in his later life. He died on February 18, 1546, at the age of 62.
Page 180 of S.B. Shaw's published work (the relevant account entitled "Triumphant Death of Martin Luther") includes the following relevant sentence:
"He could beard the Papacy and imperial councils, yet he fell trustingly before the cross."
Recorded instances of the verb beard used in a confrontational sense go back very far indeed. A Google Books search over the period 1550 to 1800 turns up three instances from the 1500s.
From a letter (#2064) from Sir William Drury to Cecil, March 13, 1568, in Public Record Office, Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, of the Rein of Elizabeth, 1566–8:
When, after two meetings, he [Drury] saw no promise of redress performed, but rather delays and shifting answers, he complained to the Earl of Murray, and he promised that he should have better justice, to which end at the next meeting he would send an express man, as well to hear what was in his part demanded, as to move Cessford to do justice according to duty ; whereat Cessford and other maintainers of wrong were much displeased, and thereupon either to beard him, or to have attempted some violence upon his body, assembled by secret warning as many as were able to use any weapon. Drury having some intelligence to look to himself, did not go slenderly accompanied.
From H. Jackson, Ludus Scacchiae: Chesse-Play (1597):
Then musing where to gin the Game,/that Pawne he first did moue/Which from the Foe deuides the Queene/the blacke Mens force to proue:/Two steps he goes, then Mercury/remooues out of his place/A pawne that stood iust opposite,/to beard him face to face./Thus stand these two in Bataile front.
Fom Edward Guilpin, Skialetheia: Or, A Shdowe of Truth, in Certain Epigrams and Satyres (1598):
(R[e]ason) thou art the soules bright genius,/Sent downe from Joves throne to safe conduct us/In this lifes intricate Daedalian maze:/How art thou buffuld! how comes this disgrace,/That by opinion thou art bearded so,/Thy slave, thy shadow ; nay, out-bearded too?
To illustrate the continuity of this usage, I also note a couple of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century occurrences. From William Temple, Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands (1687):
But this addition of empire, with the vast treasure flowing every year out of the Indies, had without question raised King Philip's ambition to vaster designs ; which made him embrace, at once, the protection of the League in France against Henry III. and IV. and the donation made him of Ireland by the Pope, and so embark himself in a war with both those crowns, while he was bearded with the open arms and defiance of his own subjects in the Low-Countries.
And from Thomas Blackwell, Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, volume 1 (1753):
Had they [members of the Long Parliament], like John Hambden, or Algernon Sidney, gone to War themselves,——commanded the Armies of the Common-wealth in their Turns, come again and taken their Places in the House, no one single Officer durst have bearded them, or could have shone like a Meteor, (as Cromwell did) among Stars of an equal or superior Magnitude.