MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Faces Are Sometimes Called “Mugs”

You know the drill: when you break the law, they haul you downtown & take a few pics of your face at the police station. We call those photos “mug shots”, since the word “mug” is slang for face. But, why are faces called “mugs”?

Most details point to an 18th-century form of British drinking cups called “Toby jugs”. There’s actually even an American Toby Jug Museum, in Illinois, and they note that the original Toby jugs were ceramic pitchers shaped & painted to look like a “seated, jovial, stout man dressed in period attire, wearing a tricorn hat, puffing on a pipe, and holding a mug of ale”. As for who Toby actually was, that’s still a matter of debate. Some folks think he was modeled after Sir Toby Belch, the rowdy party animal in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Others believe “Toby” was inspired by Henry Elwes, one of Yorkshire England’s most infamous ale-drinkers from that time. Elwes, who was fondly nicknamed “Toby Philpot”, was even memorialized in a drinking song called “The Brown Jug.”

In that song, Toby was described as a “thirsty old soul” who sat “with a friend & a pipe, puffing sorrow away.” In the song, Toby dies suddenly, and his body eventually deteriorates into the clay beneath his grave. The ballad ends with a potter happening upon that patch of clay & using it to make a brown jug for ale.

As years passed, though, potters started producing containers that bore the likenesses of other people & characters. And, while the original Toby jugs depicted a whole man & had a spout for pouring, a lot of the later versions were simple drinking mugs that only featured the person’ face. And, as those faces were a bit caricaturish, that’s the most likely reason why the word “mug” is so often used to describe an unappealing face or facial expression.

And, if you think about it, not too many criminals ever seem to look their best in a mug shot. So, I guess that particular idiom actually pretty appropriate.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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