Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Splitting hairs?

with 21 comments

The Bearded Lady
Image by Hidden Eloise via Flickr

A whiskers-pride movement has been growing in recent years. Across the web, there are women writing about their heartfelt acceptance of their moustaches and beards…

That’s Julie Bindel, writing in the Guardian about her less than heartfelt acceptance of hairs growing on her own face. She says:

The second they appear they are instantly torn asunder.

Asunder? Excuse me for going off topic, but I think she meant to say ‘torn out’.

‘Asunder’ is an archaic or literary term meaning ‘apart’ as in:

Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.

‘Torn asunder’ would, I think, mean that the hair itself is torn apart. Or perhaps the hairs are ‘put asunder’ from her face? No, that doesn’t really work.


The Oxford Dictionary of English told me to compare ‘asunder’ with ‘sunder’. I duly did so. ‘Sunder’ is also described as a literary term and means ‘split apart’. The apparently over-caffeinated lexicographer responsible for the entry added this suggested use:

A universe sundered ages ago in a divine war

Having looked around and got away with that one, the lexicographer’s fevered imagination then came up with the following suggested use for the phrase ‘in sunder’ which means ‘apart’ or ‘in pieces’:

Hew their bones in sunder!

Sooooooo — moving on then…


In her article, Julie Bindel explains that she has campaigned for years against the beauty industry and cosmetic surgery, but confesses:

… we all have an Achilles heel, and mine is facial hair.

Well, it made me smile.

Commonly confused and just plain wrong



21 Responses

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  1. Ah yes, Julie Bindel – the CiF trolls’ best friend.

    That axe of hers must be ground down to a nubbin by now. . .


    02/10/2010 at 3:05 pm

    • …especially if she’s using it to shave off her facial hair.


      02/10/2010 at 6:13 pm

  2. Like all forms of body hair, it’s your right to remove or keep it. But, if you keep it, others (more shallow than you) may find the hair asundering.

    Michael Farrell

    02/10/2010 at 6:03 pm

    • I’m not sure if I should be offended by your use of the second person singular there…


      02/10/2010 at 6:16 pm

  3. When I stopped laughing and was able to compose myself, I gave this the serious consideration it deserves. Wouldn’t waxing qualify as tearing hair asunder?


    02/10/2010 at 6:05 pm

  4. Perhaps if you violently part your hair it’s possible for it to be torn asunder? Why she’d be trying to part her facial hair is anyone’s guess.


    02/10/2010 at 6:57 pm

    • Now there’s an image to conjure with (or not, if you’re feeling delicate). *Enclosing some teabags and proper chocolate*


      02/10/2010 at 8:24 pm

      • There’s a thought – Julie Bindel emulating Edward Teach!


        02/10/2010 at 11:42 pm

        • Blackbeard! I had to check — I wasn’t familiar with the Edward Teach name.

          Wikipedia quotes Charles Johnson:
          So our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared there a long Time. This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramilies Wiggs, and turn them about his Ears.

          That also led me to look up ‘cognomen’, which means ‘an extra personal name given to an ancient Roman citizen, functioning like a nickname and typically passed down from father to son’. (Oxford Dictionary of English)


          03/10/2010 at 11:19 am

          • I remembered Teach, and the dreadlocked beard, but couldn’t remember which pirate he was until I checked.

            Along with Red-legs Greaves, Teach was that rarity, a remarkably considerate and civilised pirate but, while Greaves lived to a ripe old age (for those days, anyway), Teach’s consideration for others wasn’t reciprocated, and he was hanged.


            03/10/2010 at 1:56 pm

      • Hair-asundering keeps people in line. Just ask Cleopatra (or Shakespeare)who hissed at a messenger who had the nasty job of delivering bad news:

        “I’ll unhair thy head.”

        Eeek! (and I’m positive that’s what the messenger said. In his head.)


        03/10/2010 at 3:35 pm

        • Hi, Jo — I just looked up this scene. It seems that unhairing his head was the least of his worries:

          Thou shalt be whipp’d with wire, and stew’d in brine,
          Smarting in lingering pickle.

          I think he eventually escaped unpickled and with his hair intact.


          03/10/2010 at 3:46 pm

          • I disapprove of lingering pickles. They all need to get off their ends and get to work.


            03/10/2010 at 3:59 pm

  5. Yikes on that last line. Facial hair as a problem with potentially deadly consequences? You must be kidding.

    Here’s the definition from the Wikipedia entry on the term:

    “An Achilles’ heel is a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength, that can actually or potentially lead to downfall. While the mythological origin refers to a physical vulnerability, metaphorical references to other attributes or qualities that can lead to downfall are common.”

    I would try shaving first. For sure, it will extend your life and no doubt keep you from being torn asunder.

    Don Bates

    04/10/2010 at 6:20 am

    • And it’ll certainly stop people sticking spears in your foot.


      04/10/2010 at 9:56 am

    • Hi, Don — nice to see you again. Thanks for the definition of Achilles heel. Yes, shaving — or waxing, perhaps: less stubble.


      04/10/2010 at 10:44 am

  6. Hi Deborah,

    You seem to have a clock problem – all the posts in this thread are timed at 4:39.



    04/10/2010 at 12:39 pm

    • Thanks, Ron. The butler’s hot on filing, but clocks — not so much. He consulted the manual and rectified matters.


      04/10/2010 at 11:48 am

  7. Perhaps she was ripping her facial hair asunder so that she might braid it?


    04/10/2010 at 5:19 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — I’m glad you’re feeling better. Yes — as suggested by Ron, perhaps a Blackbeard-influenced fashion statement.


      04/10/2010 at 5:24 pm

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