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shameless pleading

Beard, to

And I’ll bet it has a lovely view of the unicorn stables.

Dear Word Detective: In a recent conversation, a friend was discussing a confrontation at work where an individual was “bearded in their den.” I’ve always been fascinated by that phrase, which I think in its original form is “to beard the lion in his den.” Can you shed any light on the origin of the phrase? Also, for the record, I have a beard, but I don’t have a den. The real estate agent said it was a “hearth room.” — Chris Schultz, Kansas City.

A “hearth room”? Did you get a few hogsheads of mead with the house? How deep is your moat? I love real estate agents. These are the creative geniuses who decided that the venerable term “dead end street” was depressing timid home buyers and picked “cul de sac” (French for “bottom of the bag”) as a substitute. I guess Jean-Paul Sartre had sort of ruined the alternative, “No Exit.” Meanwhile, back when people were still buying houses, there used to be a real estate showcase on the local TV station here every Sunday. We watched it purely for the surreal narration, in which a tiny, gloomy parlor became a “great room,” eight-foot ceilings “soared,” and a birdbath and a plastic wading pool routinely counted as “professional landscaping.”

“To beard the lion in his den” is a phrase dating back to the first Book of Samuel in the Bible, which tells the story of David, a shepherd who pursued a lion that had stolen one of his sheep. Long story short, David bravely seized the lion “by his beard” (chin whiskers) and slew him. The “in his den” detail most likely came from another Bible story, that of Daniel cast into a lions’ den and saved by an angel. Put together, “to beard the lion in his den” was an established idiom by Roman times meaning “to confront a dangerous opponent directly; to defy or challenge an adversary on his own ground,” with at least some degree of success. Today the phrase is often shortened to “beard someone in his own den” or just “to beard” with reference to a non-den locale (“Shall that English silkworm presume to beard me in my father’s house?”, Sir Walter Scott, 1820).

Although we usually encounter “beard” as a noun, it’s also been used as a verb since the 15th century, originally in the obvious, but now strangely obsolete, sense of “to grow a beard” (“Lewis, King of Hungary … was said … to have bearded at fifteen,” 1672). “To beard” meaning “to resolutely defy or oppose” has been commonly used in English since the early 16th century, often with no reference to lions. Part of this use of “to beard” reflects the use of the noun “beard” to mean “face” since the 14th century in such phrases as “to say something to an opponent’s beard,” meaning directly to his face. But it’s also true that for much of human history wearing a beard was considered a bad idea in combat situations because it gave an opponent something to hang on to in a fight. This is supposedly why, for instance, the Roman army forbade facial hair.

So “to beard” someone, especially in their “lair” or “den,” means to confront them as directly as possible, and, of course, to win the fight. A person who tries to beard someone and fails is known simply as “the loser.” Just keep in mind that the laws in many jurisdictions take a dim view of actually pulling on your coworker’s beard.

3 comments to Beard, to

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