Q From N A Lindsey-Renton, California: Can you tell us anything about the phrase duke’s mixture, apparently known to lovers of dogs? It may mean ‘mongrel’, but whether it refers to a particular duke; to the propensity of dukes in times past to mate with various available women; ‘droit de seigneur’; or simply the propensity of dukes’ dogs to mate with any bitch in heat, I know not.
A The expression Duke’s mixture for an odd combination of things or a strange mixture of items will be known to many older Americans, though I believe it has now passed out of day-to-day currency. Where it comes from is clearly puzzling, not only to you but to others whose queries I’ve come across. Attempts are sometimes made, for example, to connect it with dukes in the sense of fists.
In The Agony of the Leaves in 1996, Helen Gustafson reported a story that the name came from a brand of blended English tea, created accidentally when the butler of King George V dropped several containers of tea and swept their contents into one container; the king approved of the taste but self-effacingly refused to allow his name to be attached to the blend, so that it was marketed under the name of an anonymous duke. You may not be too surprised to learn that this story is incorrect.
The original Duke’s Mixture was a brand of tobacco, which was manufactured and sold by Washington Duke of Durham, North Carolina, from the 1890s onwards. His firm, the Duke Tobacco Company, also made and sold other brands, of which the most famous may be Bull Durham. Mr Duke died in Durham in May 1905, by which time his company had acquired many other firms, including the Lucky Strike Company, and had been renamed the American Tobacco Company.
The expression Duke’s mixture seems from anecdotal evidence to have begun to be used as an elaborated form of mixture in the 1930s. However, the oldest example I have encountered in print is from the sports pages of the Burlington Daily Times-News of North Carolina, dated 4 April 1963: “Some people are born golfers. Others are born duffers; some are a Duke’s mixture of the two breeds, remaining in the never-never land of ‘so-so’ talent.” But the earliest example specifically relating to breeds of dog I can turn up is this small ad from the Placerville Mountain Democrat of California, for 13 May 1971: “Help! Duke’s mixture of 11 gd. pups free to gd. home”.