Origins of the terms ‘nob’ and ‘toff’

In the Arrowood books, the narrator Norman Barnett often uses the terms ‘nob’ or ‘toff’ when talking about people of a high status. These terms were common in the 19th century, and are still used in the UK today.

I’d never wondered where the terms came from until I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on the history of India. During the discussion, the historian William Dalrymple said that the term ‘nob’ came from the term ‘nawab’ (a governor of the Mogul Empire), from which came the 17th century term ‘nabob’ (a person who came back to Britain after becoming wealthy in India).

There are other theories as to the origin. The OED, which defines nob as ‘a person of some wealth of social distinction’ isn’t sure. It was in use as early as 1676, and might be an abbreviation of ’noble’ or ’nobleman’, or it might come from ‘nab’ meaning the head, a hat, or a coxcomb. wiktionary suggests it might come from ‘white-nob’ (“white-head”), a term for the white, powdered wigs worn by middle class people in the 1700s.

‘Toff’ is defined by the OED as ‘a person who is stylishly dressed or who has a smart appearance; a swell; (hence) one of the well-to-do, a ‘nob’.’ This source says it might derive from the 18th century ‘tuft’ (a titled student at Oxford who wore a gold tassel on their cap, also called a ‘tuft’).

So, there you go.

Reading and Writing Historical Fiction event

If you’re in the Cambridge area, do come along to this free event. Booking is essential. Saturday 26 October, 15.30 – 16.30 : Cambridge Festival Of Ideas. Reading and Writing Historical Fiction. Historical fiction panel event with authors Emma Flint, Syd Moore and Antonia Senior (Mick Finlay chairing). Followed by booksigning. At Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge. Free tickets – booking here.

Did Victorian writers in Britain use ‘-ise’ or ‘-ize’?

A friendly reader recently commented to me that in using the suffix ‘ize’ (e.g. organize) I was adopting American English spellings rather than British English. I’ve been checking the copy edits of the third Arrowood book, and the issue has come up again: what form would a Victorian writer from London use? I found this very useful post from Hannah Kate that goes some way to answering the question. It seems that Victorians used both suffixes, although ‘ise’ gradually became more popular.

Here’s a quote from that article:

While the American -ize/-ise distinction was tidied up and codified by Webster and his successors, Britain continued on with its somewhat haphazard habits. In the nineteenth century, the worm began to turn and -ise began to reassert itself. Again, this coincided with both a general drive to ‘tidy up’ the somewhat higgledy-piggledy English language and the introduction of new technologies. Just as the invention of the printing press played a role in the standardization of spelling and grammar, the industrialization of the printing process and the rise of commercial publishers furthered the move towards a consistent(ish) set of spelling rules. This was the age of Henry Alford insisting that it is wrong to ever split an infinitive, and of Robert Lowth stating that a preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence on.

What’s strange, though, is that while late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century grammar rules almost invariably looked to classical languages for their authority – e.g. infinitives should not be split in English because they can’t be split in Latin – the non-Latinate -ise suffix grew in popularity. To me, it feels like split infinitives and -ize endings have a lot in common, and yet it was during the reign of Victorian grammarians that -ise returned to dominance. (From Hannah Kate, In Defence of -ize)

Book 3 title

My publishers (HQ Harper Collins) have decided on Arrowood and the Thames Corpses as the title for the third Arrowood book. It’s coming out April 2020 in the UK. I’ll post the dates for other countries and translations as soon as I know them. You can pre-order on Amazon here.

The bloody origins of the modern bowler hat

The short bowler hat as we know it developed from a brutal murder in London in the 1860s. In the second half of the 19th century, bowlers were worn mostly by the working classes in Britain, with a crown that was much taller than the bowlers we’re used to now. More similar to the top hat, in fact. This 1877 photo from John Thomson shows the original height (the fellow on the right).

Chris Payne’s book Chieftain: Victorian True Crime Through the Eyes of a Scotland Yard Detective explains how the murder of Thomas Briggs in 1864 led to the development of the more compact bowler hat that we would recognize now. Briggs’s unconscious body was discovered on the trainline outside Hackney Wick, London. His head had been battered multiple times and his body thrown out of a moving train. Briggs later died in hospital.

The victim was known to wear one of the tall, bell-crowned hats pictured above. However, the hat was missing from the murder scene. Instead, there was a black beaver hat made for a smaller head. This turned out to be a vital clue. When the police eventually tracked down the suspect, Franz Mueller, they found a shorter-than-normal bowler hat in his possession. On further inspection, they found that Mueller had cut out a section to make it fit better, then repasted the felt to disguise the alteration. The case was covered extensively in the newspapers, and 50,000 people turned up to watch Mueller’s execution.

Payne reports that hatters cashed in on the huge publicity around the trial by producing cut-down bowler hats like the one below, which they called ‘Muller hats’. These shorter hats eventually become more popular than the original high-crowned affairs, until the taller bowlers disappeared entirely.

This murder case also contributed to East End slang, where the word ‘mullered’ meant ‘murdered’. This eventually came to mean ‘very drunk’ (e.g. I was mullered last night) and is still used in this sense.