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Q&A: Where does “noggin” come from?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're head hunting…

Q: Hi AWC, have you heard the term “use your noggin”?

A: As in to think – to use your head/brain? Yep.

Q: So I have a simple one this week. Why do we call the head a “noggin”?

A: Maybe not so simple. The word itself dates back to England in the late 1500s. But it didn’t always mean head. Originally, it was the word for a small cup or mug.

Q: Like a noggin of coffee?

A: Sure.

Q: Can’t say I’m a fan of coffee though. It’s not my “noggin of tea”. Haha.

A: Well good, because a noggin’s beverage was more likely to be alcoholic. In fact, by the 1690s, the word “noggin” actually came to mean a small measure of alcohol – around a quarter of a pint – something that you’d put IN the cup.

Q: So they were drinking noggins filled with noggins?

A: It was a confusing time.

Q: Oh wait, is this where “eggnog” comes from?

A: Partly yes. “Nog” was a strong ale brewed in Norfolk – probably derived from “noggin” as it also debuted in the 1690s. It wasn’t until the 1770s that the Americans decided that mixing eggs, milk and sugar with alcohol was a good idea – gifting the world with “eggnog”.

Q: All this is doing my noggin in…

A: Even today, Macquarie Dictionary still lists the main meanings of “noggin” as either a small cup OR a small measure of spirits. Head is listed colloquially.

Q: So when did THAT meaning first show up?

A: Some point to an early British example of it in print from 1769: “Giving him a stouter (punch) on the noggin, I laid him as flat as a flaunder.” But the first widespread use of it as head in an informal sense was seen in print in America in the 1840s.

Q: But WHY choose “noggin” for head?

A: No one’s entirely sure, but there are plenty of theories. To drink a noggin of alcohol back then would make you “noggy” – with a head rather affected by drink. Another comes from the drinking mugs themselves being in the shape of grotesque heads – popular in England at the time.

Q: Well, I guess a head is a container of sorts.

A: True. Yet another theory is that its origins were from British boxing slang, again maybe the idea of being “punch drunk” could have been linked to noggin.

Q: Any OTHER theories?

A: Actually yes. Remember how the original “noggin” was a small cup or mug?

Q: I do. It was only a minute ago.

A: Well, those same grotesque-faced drinking “mugs” were what gave rise to a face being also known as a mug from 1708. (A police “mug shot” came later, in the 1870s.) So, if a mug could become a face, it’s likely that a noggin became a head.

Q: And what about the phrase “use your noggin”? Is that just as old?

A: Not at all. It seems that phrase didn’t appear until the 1930s.

Q: So, to recap, it started as a small cup, then became the stuff you put in the cup and then became the thing that the cup was shaped like?

A: Something like that. It is impressive for slang to last more than two centuries and still be relevant today.

Q: If you say so.

A: Oh, we do.

Q: I just got a text message from my uncle. He’s a builder and he told me that a noggin is that horizontal bit of wood that goes between wall studs.

A: Oh, yeah, that’s a thing too. But that’s just one of those industry jargon things and not related to this topic.

Q: Sometimes it feels like some words are like busy builders: they take on too many jobs.

A: It’s definitely a noggin scratcher…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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