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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.


I mean, c’mon: egg plant? That ain’t right.

Dear Word Detective:  When I’m in one of my darker moods, my favorite song is Meat Loaf’s “Life is a lemon and I want my money back.”  Today I began to wonder where this use of the word “lemon” came from.  We use the corresponding word “Zitrone” in the same sense in German, along with the extended phrase “mit Zitronen handeln” (literally, “to deal in lemons”).  Obviously, lemons can be unpleasantly sour, but I could name quite a few things that taste a lot worse.  So, why lemons? — Holger Märtens, Germany.

There are indeed a lot of things that taste worse than lemons.  I would nominate, for example, eggplant, which pegs my personal Yuck-O-Meter (all the way to eleven, in fact).  Why anyone would voluntarily eat that stuff utterly eludes me.  Right now several thousand readers are, of course, shaking their heads and tut-tutting, “That poor deluded boy.  He’s just never had eggplant cooked correctly.  I’ll send him my recipe!”  Please don’t. I already have a wonderful recipe for eggplant, coincidentally the same one recommended by Samuel Johnson for his own least-favorite vegetable:  “A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”

Lemons have had an image problem pretty much ever since humans began cultivating them.  On the one hand, used as a flavoring, lemons make all sorts of yummy things possible, from lemonade to lemon meringue pie to lemon drop candy.  On the other, lemon juice on its own is acidic, sour and stings like the dickens when it gets in your eyes.  (For some mysterious reason, lemons hate me and attack at every opportunity.)  Very few people sit around munching on lemons, but that’s true of useful flavorings such as garlic and cinnamon as well.  Still, we don’t call a new car that croaks after 500 miles “a garlic,” so there must indeed be something about the lemon.

The word “lemon” comes to us from the Old French “limon,” which was derived from Arabic roots and served as a generic term for citrus fruit in general (which explains how the same root could also give us “lime”).  The use of “lemon” to mean “disappointing result” or “something unwanted” is very old, reflecting the fact that, while useful in cooking, a lemon standing alone is just a lump of sourness with a tough skin to boot.  In Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labours Lost (1598), for instance, one character proclaims, “The armipotent Mars, of lances the almighty, Gave Hector a gift …,” to which another puckishly suggests, “A lemon.”

In the mid-19th century, “lemon” was used as a colloquial term for a person of a “tart” disposition, as well as, more significantly for our purposes, slang for a “sucker” or “loser,” a dim person easily taken advantage of.  It has been suggested that this latter use stems from the idea that it is easy to “suck or squeeze the juice out of” such a person (“I don’t know why it is, rich men’s sons are always the worst lemons in creation,” P.G. Wodehouse, 1931).  By 1909, “lemon” was also firmly established in American slang as a term for “something worthless,” especially a broken or useless item fobbed off on an unsuspecting customer.

It’s likely that the current use of “lemon” to mean “something that doesn’t live up to its billing” or “a disappointing purchase” comes from a combination of “lemon” in the “sucker” sense (i.e., the buyer got “taken”) and the much older sense of “lemon” meaning “something undesirable.”


Tee many martoonies.

Dear Word Detective: I just read in an article that “binge” (as in a drinking binge) may come from the Belgian town of Binche. The author of the article apparently doesn’t trust that story himself. The only thing I could come up with through research was that “binge” used to be a dialect word from Northampton. — Alex, Switzerland (Yes, we even read your column here).

Hey, I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit lonely I check the access logs for to see where my visitors come from. It’s really rather amazing. In just the past hour, in addition to the usual gang of Americans, Canadians and Brits, I’ve had visits from Bangkok, Mumbai, Sri Lanka, and Auckland, New Zealand. Five people in Moldova have visited this month, and I’m not even entirely certain where Moldova is. But it’s nice to know that if I wake up some morning and find myself on Malta I have at least sixteen friends there.

The article you sent along (, about the annual Mardi Gras celebration in Binche, Belgium, is fascinating, and the slideshow that comes with it makes our Mardis Gras in New Orleans look almost sedate. “Mardi Gras” (French for “Fat Tuesday”) is, of course, the name given to celebrations culminating in what is also called Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar. As Lent is a time of fasting and self-denial, Fat Tuesday was traditionally one’s last chance to use up all the fat, butter and other sinful goodies in one’s kitchen — thus the name.

It’s more than halfway through the article, just after a mention of “considerable drinking in the town’s many cafes” during the festivities, that the author ventures to mention that “It’s said that the English word ‘binge’ can be traced to Binche.” And I’d agree that no, the dude doesn’t believe that at all. “It’s said” is a classic journalist’s dodge. It’s actually refreshing to see a reporter decline to declare as absolute truth whatever some Chamber of Commerce has dreamed up to add a little more flapdoodle to the pile. “Binche” may bear a superficial resemblance to “binge,” but there is no connection between the two.

Celebrations of Mardi Gras have been going on in Europe since Medieval times, but “binge” is a relatively recent word in mainstream English, first appearing in print in 1854 meaning “a heavy bout of drinking.” I say “mainstream English” because “binge” was borrowed from the Northampton (UK) dialect verb “to binge,” which meant, appropriately enough, “to soak.” The origin of that dialect “binge” is uncertain.

Although “binge” as a verb was originally used specifically to mean “to drink to excess,” by the 1930s “binge” was being used to mean any kind of out-of-control spree, from eating food (“Marshall Neilan now and then goes on an eating binge,” 1937) to drug use (“The period after … [his] 1981 drug binge was a nightmare,” 1990) to shopping (“Consumers needed the steroids of repeated tax cuts and successive rounds of mortgage-refinancing to sustain their remarkable spending binge,” 2004).