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 suggests that it was originally a term used in and around the theatre. This is confirmed by one of its earliest appearances:
In green room slang a poor actor is designated a “stick” or “duffer.” Rich patrons of actresses are known as “spoons.” Second class swells who affect ballet girls are styled “mashers,” while the heavily gotten up old fellows are denominated “takers.”
Indianapolis Evening Journal, 23 Dec. 1872. Spoon is related, of course, to spooning, behaving in an amorous way in public.
Mash and its derivatives crossed the Atlantic to Britain about 1880. In its first edition, the Oxford English Dictionary defined 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”. A well-known British journalist, George Augustus Sala, wrote of his experience of the type following a visit to the US. British counterparts weren’t so different.
Oddly enough, an English correspondent writes me now to ask, not the derivation, but the meaning of a “Masher.” In reply, I would say that in the United States the term is applied to two different classes of admirers of the fair sex. The “Society masher” is merely a good-looking and rather foppish “ladies’ man,” somewhat of a “spoon,” and occasionally a “muff.” He is sweet, civil, not unamusing, and harmless. He will marry, and never ask for a latch-key. But masher number two is, in the States, rather a fast-going, champagne-supper-ordering, Pink-Dominoes-frequenting, burlesque-extravaganza-admiring young man. He resembles our jeunesse dorée, or “Stage Dorey” as Mr. John Hollingshed calls them, with a slight touch of Don Juanism.
Illustrated London News, 25 Nov. 1882. Pink Dominoes was a notorious, and hugely popular, French farce staged at the Criterion Theatre in London in 1877. One review called it “fast, highly coloured, and strikingly suggestive.”
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. 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. It has been widely believed that it derives from the Romany language, in which mash was said to mean to allure, delude, or entice. The current entry in the OED dismisses this on the grounds that no such word appears to exist in any Romani dialect.
It suggests instead that it is from the standard English sense of mash for reducing something to a soft mass, with its obvious idea of rendering the object of one’s attentions pliable and yielding. If so, it’s a close parallel to crush in its sense of a brief but intense infatuation.
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 most often appears in police slang for a man who sexually harasses women, a sense that was around from its earliest days.