Today, the New York Times online edition reviews a documentary film. The review contains the following sentence:

The filmmakers don’t villainize anyone, though a few participants come awfully close to twirling waxed mustaches, like an American manager who jokes to a Chinese colleague that it would be a good idea to duct-tape the mouths of talky American workers.

It's clearly nothing positive, but I have never heard of it, cannot deduce the exact meaning from context and could not find anything online, partly because most hits concern physical mustaches.

  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moustache_wax -- Such mustaches were a standard feature of villains in old dramas.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 12:22
  • 2
    In the early 1900s, the villain stock character — the one who tied helpless lasses to railroad tracks — always a had long, thin, waxed mustache, and they’d constantly twist them (ostensibly, to maintain their shape, in meta-narrative, so you’d know they were doing evil and enjoying it). Google “Snidley Whiplash” to see this trope taken to the extreme for the sake of parody.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 12:22
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    @HotLicks That would be a sufficient answer :-) (as would be Dan's comment). Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 12:27
  • it's the etymology that is difficult to pin down, not the trope.
    – lbf
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 14:04
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    @lbf There isn’t an etymology to be had. Etymology applies to linguistic artifacts. This is a cultural allusion. You might as well ask “what is the etymology of the wizard of Oz”? (Not the words, the movie.)
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 14:51

1 Answer 1


In the sense of 'twirling waxed mustaches': Dastardly Whiplash

An oddly specific kind of character, the Dastardly Whiplash is a cartoonish villain taken from the silent film tradition [1891-1920]. Usually a Man of Wealth and Taste, in Great Britain (cough Evil Brit cough), he was generally a Bad Baronet; in the U.S., he was often an Evil Banker who held the mortgage on the heroine's farm. Physically, he's slightly hunched with an exaggerated nose and chin, a curling black moustache (all the better to twirl at you, my dear)

and: JSTOR

At home, too, beards and mustaches reflected a kind of masculinity that was falling out of favor. In 1920, Alma Whitaker, a Los Angeles Times columnist, complained that “tricky little mustaches” found on men returning from World War I

I appears from vaudeville to the the 'talkies' to the dashing soldiers of WWI returning, the twisting part came to connote 'evil design'. My sense would place this figurative usage in AmE at the turn of the 20th C.

  • Turn of the 20th, no?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 15:46
  • @DanBron i need more coffee
    – lbf
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 15:55

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