How many meanings can you think of for the word mug? It’s not a word we think about often but when you do, you realise it’s a pretty versatile little thing. The Oxford Dictionaries website gives six definitions, four for nouns and two for verbs:

  1. A large cup, typically cylindrical with a handle and used without a saucer
  2. A person’s face
  3. A stupid or gullible person
  4. A hoodlum or thug
  5. Attack and rob (someone) in a public place
  6. Make faces, especially silly or exaggerated ones, before an audience or a camera

What makes the word even more interesting is that all these meanings, seemingly disparate, are actually all related.

The original sense of mug dates back to the 1400s but is now obsolete. It was used to refer to a dry measure, particularly of salt, much in the way cup is used in the US. Unfortunately, we can’t trace the origin any further back than that although there is some speculation that is could have a Scandinavian origin as there are similar words in Swedish, mugg, and Norwegian, mugge, or it could be related to Low German through  mukke.

By the 1560s, mug took on the first meaning we are familiar with, that of a drinking vessel. It’s a logical step from a measurement to a pot or jug but after that, the semantic shifts get more complex.

By the 1700s, mug had become a slang word for a person’s face, possibly because of the grotesque, cartoon-like faces that featured as decoration on mugs at that time.

Then, the word went on to become a slang word for ‘strike someone in the face’ in the boxing community, in the early 1800s.

From there, it was a simple widening of meaning to shift from ‘strike someone in the face’ to ‘attack’ more generally, in the 1840s, and instances of ‘attack to rob’ are found less than 20 years later. This later meaning was also possibly influenced by the use of mug in thieves slang to mean ‘dupe’ or ‘fool’ which had developed at about the same time.

The phrase mug shot, as in ‘photograph of a person for police records’, actually stems from the ‘face’ meaning of mug rather than the crime-related meaning.



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