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01:00 Thu 14th Mar 2002 |

Q. So Peter the Great taxed people who covered themselves in, well, poo

A. No. People who had excrement on their faces.

Q. Confused. Meaning

A. Excrement is anything that is excreted, from the Latin excrescere, to come forth. So it means any matter which grows out of or is excreted by the body. Today it is limited - at least colloquially - to faeces, however, the term was at one time used more often for hair, nails and feathers as well as growths or lumps on the body. What Peter the Great wanted to tax was facial excrement, that is beards.

Q. So anything that grows out of your body is excrement

A. Well, it's now a completely defunct usage, but was quite the form in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, if, at the time, you'd been told that you had an alarming amount of excrement on your chin, you could be forgiven for taking offence for an entirely different reason.

Q. Why

A. The implication was that one may not be in the A-stream intellectually. There was a theory at the time that excessive amounts of hair on the head or face indicated that one's head was full and thus pushing the excrement out. In the 1630s the English author Thomas Randolph wrote: 'Above all things wear no long beards; long beards are a sign the brains are full, because the excrements come out so plentifully.' This thinking has led to the old adage 'more hair than wit' and is most likely the reasoning behind the stereotypical depiction of a boffin with a high forehead and thinning hair and the contrasting archetype of the hairy ape-like, dim-witted thug.

In contrast, a fecundity of underarm excrement was considered a sign of good fortune.

Q. What is it about Peter the Great and beards

A. Peter the Great hated beards, so, in an attempt to wipe them off the faces of his subjects, he imposed a beard tax on anyone entering Moscow- though this didn't extend to the rather more civilised moustache, as he wore one himself. Probably not the noblest achievement of the man who turned Russia into a great European power.

See also the answerbank article on barbi-tonsoribus

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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