Q From Carolyn Jenkins: My daughters and I frequently come across the word ton in novels. It is used in Regency stories of the social whirl of parties etc. of young ladies coming out. How did the word originate?
A That’s an easy one. Ton in this sense — the fashionable style — was imported from French in the middle of the eighteenth century (so it predates the Regency period, though it was common then as well). If we go further back, French got it from Latin tonus. It was our second stab at borrowing it from French, since we had imported it four centuries earlier to make our word tone.
In French ton meant, and means, one’s manner in general, but in English it referred to a person thoroughly in fashion, being — and being seen to be — in the vogue. In this sense it’s a shortening of the French bon ton, also borrowed into English society at about the same time. Literally this was “good manner”, though it meant much more than that — good style, good breeding, and being at ease in fashionable society.
The background to it was spelled out in a passage in one of Lord Chesterfield’s famous letters to his son, dated 30 April 1750:
Fashion is more tyrannical at Paris than in any other place in the world; it governs even more absolutely than their king, which is saying a great deal. The least revolt against it is punished by proscription. You must observe, and conform to all the ‘minutiae’ of it, if you will be in fashion there yourself; and if you are not in fashion, you are nobody.