Q From Jane Rosenthal, California: A friend and I were reading a recent article in the New York Times that made mention of a mash note. I had never heard this term before, but I extrapolated that it is some sort of love note. Is there a more specific meaning than a simple love note? And can you give some insight as to the origin of the term?
A You’re roughly right about the meaning of the phrase, but there’s slightly more to it.
We have to go back some way to find the origin. The first form was the word mash by itself. This was a slang term in the US in the 1870s for an infatuation or crush (a magazine in 1877 defined it as “a deep but fleeting affection of the heart”). A mash could also be a dandy or the object of one’s affection (of either sex) or — as a verb — to make amorous advances to a member of the opposite sex, to flirt or seduce. A masher was a man who thought himself irresistible to the female sex but whose advances were often unwelcome.
The evidence collected by Professor Lighter in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and by others suggests that it was originally a term used in and around the theatre. Charles Godfrey Leland (best known for his Hans Breitmann’s Ballads about a German immigrant) wrote a note above his poem, The Masher, dated about 1895, confirming this:
The word to “mash,” in the sense of causing love or attracting by a glance or fascinating look, came into ordinary slang from the American stage. Thus an actress was often fined for “mashing” or smiling at men in the audience.
Mash and its derivatives crossed the Atlantic to Britain about 1880. Masher in particular became a term in London society, especially among the more raffish supper-club and theatre-going classes, for a type of fashionable male. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it (with a distinctly maidenly air of drawing away its collective skirts) as “a fop of affected manners and exaggerated style of dress who frequented music-halls and fashionable promenades and who posed as a ‘lady-killer’ ”, noting that the word had been common “in 1882 and for a few years after”. In a letter from London in the old Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine in 1889, a correspondent described a member of an impoverished theatrical company: “This dashing youth was distinctly conscious of his fascinations for the buxom maids who sighed beside us, and the airy and elegant nonchalance of the glances that superbly took them in would be a lesson for champion ‘mashers’ of a far higher class”.
A mash note (in its first appearances, mash letter) was an extension of the idea: a type of love letter. It is recorded first in 1880 and — as you have discovered — is still doing well. However, it refers mainly to an expression of attraction or desire from a stranger or acquaintance that is unlikely to be welcome.
Where mash and its relatives come from has been a subject of debate. It is sometimes said that it is from the standard English word meaning to make soft by one of various means, with its obvious reference to rendering the object of one’s attentions pliable and yielding. Max Beerbohm, writing in London in 1894 (mashers were still around then, despite the OED’s comment) remarked that some people derived it from Ma Chère, “the mode of address used by the gilded youth to the barmaids of the period”. But he thought it really came from “the chorus of a song, which, at that time, had a great vogue in the music-halls: ‘I’m the slashing, dashing, mashing Montmorency of the day’.” We’re pretty sure now that he was wrong, but he could hardly know that.
Back to Charles Leland again. Apart from his humorous writings, he also researched and wrote a great deal about the Romany language as well as Gypsy songs and customs. The following note from the introduction to the poem gives an origin that is now widely accepted:
It was introduced by the well-known gypsy family of actors, C., among whom Romany was habitually spoken. The word “masher” or “mash” means in that tongue to allure, delude, or entice. It was doubtless much aided in its popularity by its quasi-identity with the English word. But there can be no doubt as to the gypsy origin of “mash” as used on the stage. I am indebted for this information to the late well- known impresario Palmer of New York, and I made a note of it years before the term had become at all popular.
Though defunct in British English, mash and masher have never quite gone away in America. Mash had a resurgence of popularity as student slang in recent decades in the sense of necking or petting. Masher now sometimes appears in police slang for a man who sexually harasses women.