Usage Notes

Is 'Face Mask' Redundant?

Our (sanitary) coverage of the matter.

What to Know

There are several senses of mask that refer to something that covers or protects the face. As the location of a mask is often thus implied, the term face mask is a bit redundant, though it is just one of many examples in English of accepted redundancy.

surgical face mask

We'll get into it (from over here).

On Twitter, author Mary Robinette Kowal asked a sensible question that went viral:

Kowal's question comes at a time when the compound face mask has seen frequent use as the preferred term for the sanitary covering worn on the face by people trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The CDC recommends everyone wear a face mask in public, as they can help limit the virus by blocking respiratory droplets that could be spread through coughing or sneezing.
— Hanna Horvath, NBCNews.com, 14 Sept. 2020

Two Hillsborough County commissioners want to consider revoking the county’s face mask rule that’s been in place since June.
— C. T. Bowen, The Tampa Bay Times, 17 Sept. 2020

The dictionary defines face mask as "a mask or protective covering for the face or part of the face," with a specific medical subsense referring to the kind with which we are now all familiar:

(1) : a covering (as of polypropylene fiber or cotton fabric) for the mouth and nose that is worn especially to reduce the spread of infectious agents (such as viruses or bacteria)

There are also specific senses to cover the cagelike protective device worn in sports (such as by football players and hockey goalies) and the device placed over the mouth used to facilitate breathing (such as of oxygen or an anesthetic).

Mask is defined with multiple senses in the dictionary, many of which refer to something that covers or protects the face. There are senses for the kind of mask intended as a disguise or costume (such as in the theater), as well as the carved mask used as ornamentation or as part of a ritual. You will also see specific senses that align with the kinds of mask already defined at face mask.

Mask can have other meanings pertaining to concealment, like an instrument for blocking the passage of light in photography, or a decorative piece that hides something unsightly (such as a heating vent).

But when it comes to speaking of something that you wear on the body, it is fair to assume that the idea of covering or protecting the face is inherent to the meaning of mask. That is what is assumed, for example, when we speak of a ski mask or mud mask. When you hear those terms, you know where the mask goes.

So is there any point to saying face mask instead of plain ol' mask? It seems not. But while face mask can be considered redundant, it is hardly the only such phrase in English that can claim such.

And when it comes to delivering the message to some people how and where masks should be worn, perhaps a little reminder might not be a bad thing.


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