Q&A: Where does “noggin” come from?

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…

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