Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Your Ugly Mug

A while back, I featured the word toby — “a drinking mug, usually in the shape of a stout man wearing a large three-cornered hat” — as the word of the week. Dina suggested it, mostly on grounds that the word represented a concept repulsive on multiple levels, as Dina is sometimes attracted to repulsive concepts. Papers could be written about it.

Dina’s jones for all things janky actually resulted in something productive today, however.

The newest post on’s A.Word.A.Day further links the concepts of drinking containers, human faces and ugliness. The term is mug’s game, which follows fool’s gold and sword of Damocles in this week’s series of odd, possessive turns of phrase that most people probably don’t understand. When one speaks of a mug’s game, Anu Garg explains, one refers to a foolish or futile activity. It comes from a usage of the word mug meaning “fool,” but goes back to a Scandinavian mugg or mugge meaning “cup.” Apparently such beverage containers were once decorated with grotesque faces, and Garg claims this association has resulted in the various meanings carried by mug in English today. Among them: “face,” “to rob,” and “to make faces in a photograph.” The American Heritage Dictionary entry on the subject is less certain about the association, but says it’s plausible nonetheless.

I’m just amused that there’s a possible etymological connection between coffee mugs and ugliness, both because I associate both concepts with my coworkers on early mornings and because the majority of my office feels the need to comment on my badly tea-stained mug, which I seldom wash.

That last use of mug refers to my cup, by the way. Jerk.

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