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Q From Larry Nordell: What’s the origin of noggin for a person’s head? Is it regional slang? I do not see it in my compact Oxford English Dictionary (which is the edition of 1933, I believe). My Webster’s Dictionary gives it only as the third definition with no etymology.

A The Oxford English Dictionary’s come on a bit since then. The Second Edition of 1989 suggested, on the basis of early examples then known, that it was US slang. A recent revision online has taken the origin back a century and found that it started out as British sporting slang, originally from boxing.

Noggin has been in the language since the late sixteenth century. The first sense was that of a small cup or other sort of drinking vessel. This may well have been regional to start with, but became established as a standard term. It’s much better known, though, as the name for a small quantity of alcohol, usually a quarter of a pint, in which the name of the container has been transferred to its measure and its contents.

It seems to have been the idea of a container that gave rise to the fresh sense of a person’s head, which started to be used in the eighteenth century. The first known example is from a farce, The Stratford Jubilee, which mocked the festival of the same name organised by the actor David Garrick in Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1769 to commemorate William Shakespeare (during which, by the way, the British weather did not co-operate: it bucketed down with rain): “Giving him a stouter on the noggin, I laid him as flat as a flaunder.” (A stouter is a stout blow; flaunder would now be spelled flounder.)

Noggin is a good example of that rare and memorable phenomenon, a slang term that is long-lived, since it has stayed in the language, always as slang, for two and a half centuries.

A word of the same spelling is used in the building trades in various countries for a horizontal timber brace or support. This was originally spelled nogging and meant infilling a timber frame with brickwork; its origin is unknown, though its sense suggests it's unconnected with ours.

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Page created 19 Jul 2008