Tag Archives: The Mint

What Is The Origin Of (165)?…

Toffee-nosed

While we are on the subject of pejorative terms for our social superiors, we may as well look at toffee-nosed. It means snobbish, supercilious or stuck-up, never a good look. From an etymological standpoint, it has nothing to do with toffee. In fact, the derivation is from tuft via toff.

Our voyage of discovery starts among the dreaming spires of Oxford University. During the 18th and 19th centuries sons of the landed aristocracy were allowed to wear ornamental gold tassels on their mortar boards. Very fetching they must have looked too. These were known as tufts and, by extension, the wearers were known as tufts. By the 1870s wearing tufts went out of fashion, although there were some who tried to cling on to the tradition. The Westmoreland Gazette reported in March 1894 that “Lord Rosebery was one of the last undergraduates of Christ Church who wore the gold tassel, known by the name of tuft.”  And the tradition was sufficiently well-known amongst the hoi polloi for WS Gilbert to lampoon the fashion in Princess Ida, written in 1884; “you’ll find no tufts/ to mark nobility, except such tufts/ as indicate nobility of brain.

At some point during the early to middle 19th century the noun tuft, used to describe these scions of nobility, morphed into toff, almost certainly via toft. Quite how, no one knows. What seems clear, though, was that it was a term used by the lower orders to describe stylishly or fashionably dressed men. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, reported, “if it’s a lady and gentleman, then we cries “A toff and a doll”.” The adjectival form, toffy, soon followed and through etymological ignorance this was transformed into toffee, to trick the unwary in later years into thinking that it has something to do with the sugary brown sweet that plays havoc with your fillings.

The phrase toffee-nosed, though, emerged during the First World War as a description of officers who adopted a superior air. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of its usage is from TE Lawrence’s account of war-time life, The Mint, published in 1922 under the pseudonym of JH Ross. There he wrote, “China got into disgrace there. ‘I wasn’t going to f**k about for those toffy-nosed buggers, so I got back after f**king twelve, and they shoved me on the fizzer!” The ever useful Notes and Queries defined in an article entitled English Army Slang as Used in the Great War on 10th December 1921 toffee-nosed as stuck up, as did Fraser and Gibbons in their 1925 book, Soldier and Sailor Words.

Stuck-up had a longer legacy, appearing in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839. Mrs Squeers describes the eponymous hero to her husband thus; “he’s a nasty stuck-up monkey, that’s what I consider him.” The idea behind the image of stuck-up is that of haughtiness, being superior to others, perhaps even to avoid the whiff of the great unwashed. This is the sense of nosed in our phrase.

Before we leave this subject completely, for collectors of obsolete but rather splendid words, I leave you with tufthunter. This was a noun used to describe those who fawned before and sucked up to the aforementioned tufts. Thackeray was spot on when he wrote of one, a Mr Brandon, in Shabby Genteel Story, published in 1840; “Mr Brandon was a tufthunter of the genteel sort; his pride being quite as slavish, and his haughtiness as mean and cringing, in fact, as poor Mrs. Gann’s stupid wonder and respect for all the persons whose names are written with titles before them.