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shameless pleading

Toby

Or not Toby?

Dear Word Detective: I was just wondering if you could shed some light on the history of the word “toby,” meaning “A drinking mug usually made in the shape of a stout man wearing a large three-cornered hat.” My dictionary says it comes from the name Toby. I looked through your archives and did not see that you have talked about this word as of yet. — Sam West.

All in good time, my readers, and your little dog, too. Speaking of dogs, as I apparently am, I realized when I read your question that for some reason I tend to associate the name “Toby” with small dogs, the kind that yip and snap at your ankles. It turns out that there’s a good reason for that: the small trained dog introduced into the classic Punch and Judy puppet show in the 19th century was named Toby, thus accounting for the traditional popularity of the name for small obnoxious dogs.

Now that we’ve solved my mystery, on to yours. Your dictionary is correct, by the way. The use of “toby” to mean a “novelty” mug of the kind you describe definitely comes from the personal name “Toby,” which is most often a shortened form of “Tobias.”

As slang, “toby” has had several uses in English. The oldest, dating back to the 17th century, was as a popular term for the buttocks, most often found in the phrase “to tickle one’s toby,” meaning to spank or beat that part of the anatomy (“Our gracious Queen Elizabeth tickled their Tobies for them,” 1681). The logic of this use is not entirely clear, but may reflect the use of “Toby” in popular culture as a typical name of a jolly, boisterous, and usually corpulent character (probably influenced by Sir Toby Belch, a character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). The US version of “Toby” as a “type” is a loud, unsophisticated country bumpkin, and “Toby shows,” featuring such characters, were once common on the traveling theater circuit in rural America.

The “toby” mug you’ve encountered was common in the 19th century, and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was usually “in the form of a stout old man wearing a long and full-skirted coat and a three-cornered hat,” i.e., a typical 18th century costume. Given the popular image of “Toby” as a fun-loving, gregarious fellow, the choice of the figure for a slightly kitsch, but very popular, drinking vessel was a natural fit.

Of course, there looms a larger question here, which is how a mug came to be shaped like a person in the first place. In the 18th century it was common to cast mugs in the shape of human figures, especially outlandish characters with grotesque faces. So popular was this fad, in fact, that “mug” (from a Scandinavian root meaning “drinking vessel”) became slang for the human face, a sense we still use in “mug shot” and similar terms. The verb “to mug” came into use meaning “to make a grotesque face” (as in “mugging for the camera”), but also took on the grimmer meaning of “to rob by punching the victim in the face,” and the modern “mugging” was born.

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