Toffs



From the UK. George Sassoon said: The main news here is the fox hunting ban.  The ban is purely motivated by jealousy of the supposed 'toffs' who go in for it.  Randy Black would like to know more about ‘toffs.’ What is a toff?

RH: I sometimes find it hard to get the Oxford English Dictionary on line, so I asked a Stanford reference librarian to e-mail the OED entry to me. She just sent the definition; a. An appellation, originally given by the lower classes, to a person who is stylishly dressed or who has a smart appearance; a swell; hence, one of the well-to-do, a ‘nob’. b. Sometimes applied in compliment to a person who behaves handsomely’; a ‘brick’.

RH: How on earth did "brick" become a compliment?  Webster does not give "toff", and I am sorry I cannot give you the OED explanation of its origin. I do not use the word, partly because it carries an undertone of class resentment. "Nob"  is the corresponding American word, as in San Francisco's Nob Hill, where the wealthy lived. I have never hear the word used: it is guessed that it comes from "nabob". Apparently "hobnob" has nothing to do with "nob".  It applied originally to drinking companions. To your health!

Early today I succeeded in accessing the Oxford English Dictionary and found this etymology of "toff": Perhaps a vulgar perversion of TUFT, as formerly applied to a nobleman or gentleman-commoner at Oxford. RH: "Tuft" is unknown to me. The expression "gentleman commoner" suggests the old class-ridden system.  At Oxford there were scholars and commoners.  We scholars wore long gowns, the commoners short ones. At dinner the scholars sat separately on the middle level, slightly below the top level where the dons (the college faculty, not the Sicilian kind) sat.  At Christ Church,  the dons are known as "students" (studying is their life), while the students are known as undergraduates or graduate students.  The commoners, the most numerous group, sat on the lowest level.  It was a class system based on scholarship. I suppose a gentleman commoner is a commoner who is also a gentleman. I remember reading the term, but I never heard it, Sometime we shall have the define the English term "gentleman", which now is as meaningless as "ladies".  "Ladies and gentlemen": Will feminists realize that before they became obnoxious, we treated women with respect, relinquishing our seat if a lady needed one, giving way to them in stores so that they could be served first. As for the gentleman commoners, they regarded the scholars with resentment at the  inversion of social status (not entirely; a< member of the royal family sat at my table). I gather this is described in a novel I have not and will not read: Brideshead Revisited.  Perhaps Anthony Smith or George Sassoon will have some comment on this,

Meanwhile George, who defends fox hunting, is toff hunting.  He has written to The Spectator asking:  Can any Spectator reader tell us the origin of this word? George tells us: The Spectator is a British magazine with many 'toff' readers who may know the answer!

RH: Does The Tattler still exist? In my young days it was a silly magazine about the activities of  society.  Which brings us back to the meaning of gentleman: someone who was not engaged in trade. Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea baron, was not admitted to some clubs because he was in trade.  The present Egyptian owner of Harrod's has problems. Some legal matter has prevented his obtaining British citizenship. He is still viewed as an outsider. He got revenge by having his son run, or rather ride off with Princess Diana. Or have I confused this royal soap opera?

Anthony Smith writes: The word toff is believed to derive from 'tuft' as a Victorian cockney term for a swell, someone stylishly dressed, similar to a 'nob' or in modern Cockney, a 'gent', someone who behaves magnanimously.  The older term 'tuft' originated in Oxford to refer to a nobleman or one of the 'gentlemen-commoners' to whom Ronald has referred; these students were allowed to wear a gold tuft or tassel on their college caps. If you read Edward Gibbon's famous Autobiography he describes his excitement at his arrival in his 15th year at Magdalen College, wearing the golden cap "which distinguishes a gentleman-commoner from a plebeian student". (This distinction in uniform and in status was abolished finally in 1870).

A 'tuft-hunter' is a person who tries to curry favour with the wealthy or powerful. There was a very popular song during the Great War which went:
               "I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten-thirty
                And saunter along like a toff,
                I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand,
                Then I walk down again with them off."
In fact we still have a distinction between 'scholars' who have been judged worthy by their colleges of the longer gown which goes with this status and 'commoners' who wear the normal short gown. The distinction is entirely academic and based upon merit, although the term commoner is not very often used in practice. Absolutely no sense of social distinction remains attached to either of these terms as applied to students.

RH:  Gibbon was the eldest of seven sons of a well-to-do country gentleman. So we face again the problem of the meaning of "gentleman".  Presumably Gibbon was delighted that his status as a gentleman was recognized when he arrived at Magdalen.

Glenye Cain writes: Adding to the "toff" question: I also have heard the expression "toffee-nosed" used to describe "toffs" and assumed "toffs" must have come from "toffee-nosed," though I can't imagine where the latter expression came from. Regardless of the origin of "toffs," the hunting ban is a very bad idea.

RH: Glenye rides with the fox-hunting toffs. But is she a toff?  My impression is that only men can be toffs.


Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on:   http://wais.stanford.edu/ E-mail to hilton@stanford.edu. Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004

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last updated: October 23, 2004