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13 March 2010 27 Comments

Do you ever wonder where some terms come from? Recently, I read a novel where the hero was raised by his father to always “keep a stiff upper lip.” Consequently, he was out of touch with his feelings and nothing much moved him. So I decided to look into the background of this odd saying and here’s what I came up with:

In the early 1800’s a strange fashion arose among officers with regard to facial hair—they tarred their moustaches! These thick pelts over the upper lip became works of art. After an officer carefully groomed his moustache, he would then comb hot pitch through it and mold it into the desired shape. This had to be done quickly before the tar cooled and the moustache grew stiff.  Then came their dress uniform complete with ribbons, gold braid, epaulettes and voila! they were the height of fashion.

“Keep a stiff upper lip” whispered by one officer into the ear of another meant their jaunty moustache was in the process of drooping. It was a rare exception for a military officer to hail from anything other than nobility. Since these men conducted themselves in a codified and rigid manner, soon, the term “keep a stiff upper lip” spread beyond the military to the rest of nobility. Eventually, the term filtered down to the general population and came to mean a show of inner strength and fortitude. Unfortunately, it also meant a man never wept, never displayed a sign of weakness and became remote with his feelings.


  • Hans said:

    Well, thank goodness, today men can show inner strength and fortitude without having to have tarred moustaches…

  • Sean said:

    It’s interesting how the history of various sayings can show a clear picture of the rather ‘barbaric’ nature of our modern society that, so far, seems to have refused to die.
    Maybe for some it seems this saying relates to a sign of inner fortitude, and strength (borrowing Hans’ words, but not aimed in his direction); but to me it represents the idea that one should keep up appearances in order to be deemed ‘acceptable’ by a set of standards that denies people their own humanity. I would think the more masculine thing in this day in age would be to be able cry when you need to, without ‘losing your cool’. ‘Stoicism’ is not the new pink. It’s an out-of-style concept that has worn itself thin, like a pair of bad fitting ballet shoes. Still, sayings like this survive, even to this day.
    Personally, I think things would at least a bit more interesting visually, if all the uptight ‘manly men’ had to keep a tarred moustache. It would be a fitting sign of them not coming to terms with their own emotions. With or without the moustache, the whole idea is pretty silly. Would be nice to at least get a giggle out of it, instead of just random cases of poor digestion from the bottled up emotions eating people alive.
    You might also want to look up where the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ came from, as it is also an interesting read.
    Thanks….. some fun things to read on this site for sure. 🙂

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