Anybody who has seen the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) knows that the meticulous dandy Ulysses Everett McGill (portrayed by George Clooney) wouldn't be caught dead without some Dapper Dan pomade on his scalp. But even if you haven't seen the film, you still may know that the somewhat dated term pomade means “a fragrant ointment, especially one used for grooming hair.” What you probably don't know, however, is that the ancient Romans used apple pulp to make their hair ointment, and believe it or not, it is back to that old Roman grooming aid that we can ultimately trace the roots of the English word pomade. The classical Latin word pomum meant “apple,” you see, and since their hair treatment was made from apples, the Romans used pomum in reference to both the fruit and the ointment. Thus, when the Latin term passed into Italian, it became the basis for two words: pomo, meaning “apple,” and pomata, meaning “ointment” or “emollient.” Speakers of Middle French later borrowed the Italian pomata, though they changed its form to pommade. Then around 1560, English speakers borrowed the Middle French but Anglicized its spelling to pomade, and the English noun remained in common use until the 1960s, when young men started wearing their hair long and dry rather than slicking it back with an ointment like McGill's Dapper Dan.
©2015 Michael R. Gates