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Toffee-nosed

Q From Brenda Ferner, UK: Someone from America asked me about toffee-nosed, and I found a couple of derivations on the Internet, but they were unsatisfactory. Can you help?

A Americans don’t much know this slang term — its constituency is mainly Britain and Australia. It’s rude, describing a pretentiously superior, supercilious, snobbish or arrogant person.

And while the politicians pushing this £32billion [high-speed rail] project would have us believe the people fighting it are all toffee-nosed, middleclass landowners living in country piles in affluent Cheshire, that simply isn’t true.

Sunday Mirror, 3 Feb. 2013.

One rather splendid suggestion about its origin came from a British journalist some years ago. He argued it was WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) slang from the Second World War and referred to a facial expression caused by trying to disengage a toffee from your molars while keeping your mouth shut so as not to be noticed. “Inevitably, you are ‘looking down your nose’, the traditional long-faced and disapproving expression of snobs.”

Ingenious, but untrue. We can say this with certainty because the written evidence suggests that it was created in the First World War. Right context, wrong war. The issue of Notes and Queries for 10 December 1921 includes an article with the title English Army Slang as Used in the Great War. It has the entry: “TOFFEE-NOSED. Stuck up. (Trenches.)” The trenches would be those in Belgium and northern France during the war. A services origin is supported by a quotation in Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang: it’s dated 1922 and is from The Mint, a brutal but faithful record of life at that time in the Royal Air Force, written by J H Ross, a pseudonym of T E Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. It also appears in a compilation of Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons of 1925, in which it is likewise defined as “stuck-up”, a slang term of the time for the supposed nose-in-air attitude of the supercilious.

The origin has nothing to do with toffee but is toff, common slang of the previous half century for a person who was well-dressed to the point of being showy or flashy. This derives from tuft, Oxford and Cambridge slang for aristocratic undergraduates who marked their status by a gold tassel on their academic squares, the headgear commonly called mortarboards. This led to tufthunter, a toadying or sycophantic follower, which I wrote about some years ago.

Tuft seems to have become toft and then toff, followed by invention of the adjective toffy, ending up with toffy-nosed, a form used by some early writers. Through folk etymology the less familiar toffy became the commonplace toffee. The shift was made much easier because in its earliest days toffee was spelled toffy, a variant of the much older taffy, originally English dialect (still known in the US, for example, in salt-water taffy). A shift from toffy-nosed to toffee-nosed presumably paralleled the one from toffy to toffee.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Mar. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 March 2013.