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Tuft was from about 1670 a slang term for a golden ornamental tassel that was worn on an academic cap (a mortarboard) at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Most members of these universities had only a plain black tassel, but the titled undergraduates — noblemen and sons of noblemen — wore gold ones as a mark of their status. By an obvious transfer of sense, wearers of golden tufts were themselves called tufts. Those individuals who were slavish followers of the tufts, toadies or sycophants, became known as tufthunters.

Persons of the toadying persuasion have never had a good press. William Makepeace Thackeray described one in his Shabby Genteel Story of 1840: “Mr. Brandon was a tufthunter of the genteel sort; his pride being quite as slavish, and his haughtiness as mean and cringing, in fact, as poor Mrs. Gann’s stupid wonder and respect for all the persons whose names are written with titles before them. O free and happy Britons, what a miserable, truckling, cringing race you are!”

Wearing the tuft went out of fashion in the 1870s but was mocked by W S Gilbert in Princess Ida in 1884:

You’ll find no sizars here, or servitors,
Or other cruel distinctions, meant to draw
A line ’twixt rich and poor: you’ll find no tufts
To mark nobility, except such tufts
As indicate nobility of brain.

By the 1850s, the word had been transformed into toff (sometimes toft in the early days), as a lower-class slang term among Londoners for a person who was sufficiently smartly dressed to pass as a member of the nobility and — by extension — for anybody who was rich and powerful.

We have forgotten golden tufts, but we still know about their offspring, the toffs.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 16 Apr 2005