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shameless pleading

Mash note

And say hi to Eddie Haskell.

Dear Word Detective: I’m curious about why love notes are called “mash notes.” Is it  because people mash themselves together when they get “romantic”? — Nerdmonkey.

All right! At last a question from the past. I’m sick of those guys with no hair coming here from the future and getting me to do their research for them. Since you’re asking about “mash notes,” I’m guessing you’re from 1954, 1957 at the latest, right? Do me a favor when you go back. Warn them about Facebook, OK? The guys from the future say it’s the reason no one in their time has an IQ above 26.

But seriously, people still talk about “mash notes”? That is so totally sweet. I was told that puppy love had bought the farm, but I guess it’s time to break out the bobbysox and cardigans again.

A “mash note” is, as you say, a love note, especially one professing intense infatuation, often unsolicited but not necessarily unwanted. The question, of course, is where that “mash” came from. “Mash” first appeared as a noun in Old English, meaning a soft, pulpy mixture of malt, grain, etc., used to brew various kinds of alcoholic spirits. As a verb, “to mash” meant “to crush, pound or smash to a pulp” just about anything from potatoes to people, as if creating a brewery “mash.” Voila, “mashed” potatoes. “Mash” also carried the sense of “to mix together,” and subsequent uses of “mash” in figurative senses carried either or both of the “crush” and “mix” meanings (“Ye are so forward to mash the Innocent and Guilty together,” 1722). Incidentally, our modern English words “mush” and “mosh” (as in “mosh pit”) are thought to have originated as modifications of “mash.”

The “mash” of “mash note” appeared as slang in the US meaning “an infatuation” or “a flirtation” around 1870. By extension, a “mash” could also be the object of such affections or advances (“She is met by a gallus young fellow in a checked jumper. He is her ‘mash’,” 1879). “Mash note,” a letter, card, etc., expressing such an infatuation, dates from the same period, as does “masher” meaning a person, usually a man, who considers himself irresistible but whose attentions are unwanted.

This kind of “mash” may well be just an extension of “crush into a pulp” sense of “mash,” carrying the sense of “pressing on” and “softening” the emotions of the object of the “mash note.” But there is the possibility that this “mash” has nothing whatever to do with “mashing” potatoes, etc.

Apparently “to mash” in this sense first appeared as theater slang in the US, meaning an actor or actress smiling at, or otherwise attempting to charm, individual members of the audience and thus breaking the “fourth wall” of the theater, a serious breach of stage propriety. The goal of such “mashing” was usually either to attract either financial patronage or solicit romantic conquests from the audience, and such behavior could get a performer fired.

This first appearance of “mash” in the world of the theater has led to another theory about its origin, unrelated to the “smash or mix” kind of “mash.” It has been suggested that “mash” (or “masherava”) is a word meaning “to entice, allure or delude” in Romany, the language of the Roma, whom we more often call the Gypsies. Since there were several well-known Roma families of actors active in the theater in the late 19th century, goes the theory, this Romany “mash” was picked up by the theater world generally, from where it spread into wide usage.

Unfortunately, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “mash” and/or “masherava” have yet to be found in any known Romany dialect, which undercuts (but does not definitively rule out) that theory. Personally, I suspect that the “press and soften” sense of the English “mash” lies behind “mash note,” but as of now the case of the mysterious “mash” remains unsolved.

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