Erstwhile Slang: ‘Masher’…
…BEING A CONTINUATION OF THE POSTS ON MASS, MESS, AND THEIR KIN
By Anatoly Liberman
Mash has nothing to do with mass or mess, but it sounds like them, and since I have been meaning to write about masher ‘lady killer, etc.’ for a long time (see the last sentence of the previous post), I decided that this is the proper moment to do so. Some of our best dictionaries say that the origin of masher is unknown. However, if we disregard a few insupportable conjectures, the conclusion at which we will arrive won’t surprise anyone: masher is mash plus -er. Only mash poses problems. Masher enjoyed tremendous popularity during the last two decades of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, before it more or less faded from people’s memory. However, those who read old books will have no trouble recognizing the word: it crops up in the literature of the late Victorian era, in American novels written before World War I (this is where I first saw it), and in such popular British publications as Punch’s Almanac, The Daily News, The Sporting Times, The Weekly Dispatch, and The Illustrated London News, among others. The Piccadilly Masher was the title of a popular music hall song of the day. While comparing swell, dandy, beau, and such nice synonyms for “a flamboyant man about town” as Corinthian and macaroni, all designating approximately the same type of person, knowledgeable correspondents to magazines said the following in 1882 (the year, in which, according to the OED, the word was very much in vogue, though, as Stephen Goranson has pointed out, it had some currency already in 1871):
“A masher is usually a ‘swell’, but every swell is not a masher. To be ‘awfully mashed on’ a young woman is equivalent… to being ‘terrible spoons’ or ‘very hard hit’. The masher proper is a young gentleman… who, having become a devout adorer of some fair actress, nightly frequents the house where she is engaged, that he may feast his eyes upon her beauty.”
The adoring youth, we are told, becomes the actress’s mash, “like the favorite food of a highly-fed horse.” Thus, to be mashed means ‘to be dead nuts on’ or ‘hotly in love with’ a girl. This is the passive. In the active voice, to mash is ‘to make a girl dead nuts on oneself’. I have something to say about going nuts and about nuts and spoons as participants in the amorous game but will say it another time.
The condemnation of highbrows was unanimous: this barbarous addition to our slang, this precious contribution to our vocabulary, a detestable cant word, this horrible word in common and certainly vulgar use, and so forth, but in retrospect (in 1943, when one would have thought there were more pressing things to discuss) mash, masher, and mashing, the admission came that “ugly as [they] were, [they] expressed shades of meaning hard to replace exactly by more elegant equivalents” (this is of course why slang exists!) “the masher was thought of as well dressed, and offensive, but extreme villainy was not imputed to him” (an American or someone who lived in the United States for a long time wrote those lines). It always surprises me how often people call certain words ugly and detestable. No one chokes on mashed potatoes, while horses, as we have heard, are fed mash and enjoy it. What then can be offensive in the innocuous combination of the sounds m-a-(sh)? The person (for example a masher) may arouse contempt, but the word? Words can be funny (geek, for instance, or nincompoop), stupid (such as irregardless), stodgy and unnecessary (orientated, to give a random example), confusing (as when flammable happens to mean the same as inflammable), misused (thus, I often hear concise, when precise is meant, and noticed that with some speakers infamous replaced famous, as though it were its synonym), trampled to death (buzzwords), maimed by ignorance, this great motor of language history (I can cite wizened with the first syllable pronounced as wise), or misspelled (the lot of many), but barbarous? Why? The reason probably is that even in the 1920’s slang still signified the same as argot, flash, and cant. Its use was deplored and castigated. The literati would worship Rabelais and Shakespeare but wince at masher. Bah!
We may now turn to the origin of masher. Some etymologies should be safely disregarded. It has been repeated several times that masher is “a gypsy word” (the suggested etymon either does not exist or means nothing even remotely useful for the occasion), an alteration of French ma chère (this is out of the question: though a woman could occasionally be called a masher, being a masher was predominantly a male occupation), or an adaptation of Irish meas (pronounced as mash) “elegant” (this etymology was, predictably, offered by Charles Mackay, that benighted etymologist and the whipping-boy of my blog who derived most English words from Irish). Ernest Weekley, the author of the only original etymological dictionary of English written since Skeat’s days, proposed a derivation that looks rather fanciful: “Can it be a far-fetched elaboration of to be spoony on, mash being regarded as spoon-diet? Cf. to confiscate the macaroon for to take the cake.” In 1888 someone stated that masher goes back to a Scotch mining term: “Mash is a double-edged hammer for breaking coals. Mash as a verb means ‘to pound small’. From it a curious metaphor has given us a name for that product of this enlightened age known as ‘masher’.” There could not have been a less probable environment for coining masher than a mine in Scotland, but we will see that the underlying idea of this etymology is sound.
I would like to quote a passage that appeared in Walford’s Antiqurian (vol. 12, 1887, p. 93).
“Mash, to. To impress women. From mash as mixture, thus: 1) ‘Let’s go and have a mash’, that is, a drink. 2) ‘Who serves you mash?’ 3) ‘Who’s your mash? (favorite barmaid)?’ Soon any girl who officiated in public, as dancer, singer, or actress, was called a mash, and admirers (young fellows that, at this time, always ‘got up’ in white vest, high white collar, white satin tie, box hat, and bangle on wrist) were termed mashers….”
The description of the scene is more exciting than the etymology. It does not seem that mashers first appeared in bars. Most early quotations point to the theater and young bucks doting on actresses. Besides, there is a feeling that masher was imported to England from the United States. The country of origin remains undiscovered, and I failed to find any confirmation of the statement that masher was a word used by black “minstrels” (a single reference to this effect in a British magazine does not go far). Apparently, something is right about the idea that a masher conquered or tried to conquer women and “struck them all of a heap” or that he “mashed, or softened ladies’ hearts” (compare the double-edged hammer, above). It has once been noted that having a mash on a person is “rather like” having a crush on someone. To have a crush on is, by all appearances, an American coinage (a fact that gives some credence to the idea that mashers also originated in the United States), and, judging by printed documents, it postdated to have a mash on by a few decades.
An etymologist intent on historical semantics always looks for models and patterns, and here we observe that, since mash means “crush,” the two phrases are twins. When one is in love, one is overpowered by the romantic feeling (“mashed, crushed”). This is probably how both idioms came about. Yet at least the first of them had two look-alikes in close proximity. Being mashed is the same as being smashed, especially by a smashing beauty (I am not the first to juxtapose mash and smash). Then there is mushy “cloyingly, treacly sentimental,” “wishy-washy” (“mushy-mashy,” as it were). Smash and mush may have influenced and reinforced mash “to be infatuated.” Thus, first to be mashed and to mash and then masher. It is tempting to suggest that once to have a mash on lost its popularity, its synonym to have a crush on, with crush substituted for mash, took over and stayed.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”