Today’s Word Nerd Wednesday post begins with a joke:
Q: Why did the coffee go to the police station?
A: He needed to report a mugging.
Did I get a groan out of you?
My boys’ tennis coach shared this joke with us last week, and after I had finished laughing and groaning, I noticed my eight-year-old didn’t appear to have found it funny at all. Turns out, he had no idea what mugging was in the criminal sense. But even after I explained the meaning, he just looked at me blankly and said, “Why is it called mugging?”
So here I am. 🙂 And it turns out there isn’t a definitive answer. We can only make an educated guess. But here’s what we do know:
- Mug has long been known as a colloquial term for the face. In fact, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, mugs in the 18th Century often represented a grotesque face. So here’s a heads up: If someone mentions your ugly mug, they might not be criticizing your drinking vessel! And we all know about ‘mug shots’—those stunningly attractive head shots you get for free with every arrest.
- Mug is also a colloquial term for a fool or a gullible person—in the 19th Century in particular, for someone who has been duped by a card shark or a con of some sort.
- Mug can also be a colloquial term for a thug or criminal (meaning ‘mug shot’ works on more than one level).
- According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, mug was also a boxing term meaning to ‘punch an opponent in the face‘.
The term is only recorded as being used in the sense of “assault with the intent to rob” from around 1860, although people were obviously being attacked and robbed in the manner of what we now refer to as a mugging before this time.
As you can see from the above points, there are a few possible explanations. Here are the most common ones I found:
- Because mugging victims tended to get beaten up around the face, it was a reference to (a) the way they looked after being beaten up, or (b) the pugilistic nature of the attack.
- It was a reference to the fact that the person had been ‘duped’ out of their money—albeit through violence rather than trickery.
So, what do you think? Are you tipping one way or the other? Maybe you can think of another explanation. Personally, I’m tending a little more toward the first option, but I’d love to hear what you think!