Slightly Off “Toff”

A New York Times obituary the other day of George “Frolic” Weymouth had this sentence: “A bon vivant and a character, Mr. Weymouth was a toff of the old school, with a global network of friends in high places.”

Unless I’m mistaken, in British English, toff always has a negative connotation, signifying “upper-class twit.” That was surely the case in the flurry of uses four years ago, all referring to Mitt Romney.

I don’t imagine the Times meant to cast Mr. Weymouth in such a light.

29 thoughts on “Slightly Off “Toff”

    1. Andrew is correct. I think the comedian Eric Morecambe was a real toff. If anybody wants to meet an actual toff all they have to do is go Royal Ascot and they will see hundreds of them at the horse racing, they even have badges on their lapels to identify them in case you’re not sure. You can identify them by their green wellingtons, wicker baskets and champagne picnics at point to point. Look and you will see the UK is toff heavy! Our PM is one.

    1. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) suggests “toff” is derived from “tuft”: “An ornamental tassel on a cap; spec. the gold tassel formerly worn by titled undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge.” But arguing against that is the first two citations come from Henry Mayhew’s studies of the London poor, including this 1861 quote: “If it’s a lady and gentleman, then we cries, ‘A toff and a doll!’”

    2. Toffee-nosed derives from toff. A toff was a tassel on a student’s cap in the 19th century. Toffee-nosed dates from the early 20th century and was invented in the trenches of WWI.

      1. Thanks, Angela. The Phrase Finder website gives some more info (

        “It is widely agreed amongst etymologists that ‘toff’ was a corruption of ‘tuft’, which has a clear aristocratic pedigree, being the ornamental tassel on an academic cap. Specifically, a tuft was the gold tassel originally worn on academic caps at Oxford University by the sons of those peers who had a vote in the House of Lords. They were worn on the celebratory ‘Gaudy Days’, that is, the university’s twice-yearly feast days (which sound a good deal more fun than ‘Dress-down Fridays’). The wearers of the prestigious tufts became known as tufts themselves, even having their own sycophantic crowd of wannabees, known as the ‘tufthunters’.”

  1. Personally, I wouldn’t use it to mean “upper-class twit”, more somebody who dresses and acts as an upper-class person – someone who’s “toffee-nosed”, a snob. To me, it is derogatory, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “twit”.

  2. Toff is entitled male member of the upper class. Nouveau riche ( Romney et al) don’t qualify. Takes several generations of money and attitude. Not to say there aren’t pretenders. Clothes don’t make a toff, the best ones wear their ancestors’ suits ( admittedly Saville Row) and moth eaten sweaters.

    1. While ‘toff’ is often used for an upper class man, I think it’s often used for an upper class women too, and also collectively ‘the toffs’ meaning both men and women.

  3. It doesn’t have to be old money. You can buy your way in nowadays (and always could). David Cameron’s a toff. George Osborne’s a toff. And Osbo’s money come from trade, for goodness sake!

  4. ‘Toff’ is a word much used by tabloid journalists to describe people who are more articulate than they are

    1. I’ve never heard anybody actually use the word “toff” in real life – only on TV etc. I have heard “toffee nosed” but not for a long time, and I thought it implied “snob” as well as wealthy.

    2. “I have never heard “toff” used in a complimentary sense. It has a negative connotation.”
      Your first sentence cannot be contradicted. Your second does not follow from it. I have heard “toff” used as a compliment, and more often in a friendly, non-critical way, so there!

  5. ‘Toff’ is one of those words, ‘Tory’ or ‘Socialist’ that takes its flavour from the person who uses it. So it can have a positive, negative or even neutral connotation.

    1. In a blog considering UK and US language, “socialist” is a hugely difficult word, given its very loaded meaning in the USA, and its relatively unloaded meaning in the UK. But in any event (at least as regards UK usage) am not sure that either “Tory” or “Socialist” takes its flavour from the person that uses it any more than the meaning of any word (“vegan” for example) takes its flavour from context.

      But returning to the sheep for a moment – I wonder whether the use of the phrase “of the old school” is what makes the sentence in the obit interesting to analyse?

      In my view, “toff” is a reference to someone from the established English upper class (who will look down at anyone who has to buy their own furniture etc), and carries a slightly derogatory meaning. But “of the old school” implies someone who believes that the upper classes have paternalistic obligations to those classes below them. Perhaps the combination of the two results in something that is a somewhat backhanded compliment?

      1. If someone calls you a socialist or tory in Britain they can be insulting you or praising you, depending upon the context. Remember that ‘tory’ started off as a term of abuse that was eventually adopted by a politcal party in the 17th Century as a badge of honour. It’s very much like ‘queer’ in that regard.
        I think that a lot of people look at ‘tooff in the same way. It might be a term of abuse in certain contexts, but in others not. Wasn’t there a BBC programme recently called “Life is Toff” which followed the fortunes of some toffs? I don’t think the term was being used there in a derogatory sense.
        Old school isn’t really a marker of class. One can be an old school villain or an old school dustman. When you say someone is ‘of the old school’ aren’t you saying that he or she is old-fashioned in a good way.. That could apply to anyone. “He was a butler of the old school.”

  6. The old music hall song “Burlington Bertie from Bow” (1915 according to Wikipedia) includes the lines

    “I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten-thirty
    And saunter along like a toff…”

    …the singer being a penniless East Ender who likes to imagine himself as wealthy.

    Whether ‘toff’ is used here with implications of envy, of disdain or a mixture of both probably depends on interpretation.

  7. It’s not a word which can only be derogatory. We can use it in a neutral or complimentary NYT way (they clearly thought him a good sort) or for degrees of disapproval ranging from mildly dismissive to contemptuous. It depends on the social bias of the user: for a class warrior, it will be derogatory; for others, it may be that or neutral or better, depending. It’s like the word “posh” in that respect, which also isn’t necessarily derogatory. Some who don’t like the upper classes dismiss our PM and Chancellor as “posh boys” but not everyone uses it in a contemptuous way or sees poshness as a bad thing. Chambers (online): “toff noun, Brit slang an upper-class and usually smartly dressed person”. In an older print edition it adds that evocative word, “a swell”. Another term we used for the upper classes was “the quality”.

  8. I use “You’re a toff” to people as a compliment. I mean “toff” in that context as a synonym for “gentleman” (as in a courteous and polite person), which connects it behaviour rather than birth. The use of “toff” in relation to class is almost always inverted snobbery (so it seems to me) and so whilst any British reader of the term used in that way would understand that it was being used sneeringly, only those who actually were inverted snobs would use it that way.

  9. Am I right in thinking that ‘toffee-nosed’ is actually a scatalogical reference? As in a ‘brown-noser’ who is such a snob— their nose so far up an admired person’s bum— that they have, er, ‘toffee’ on their nose?

    On this note, I have noticed how, in the UK, a snob is someone who tries to curry favor with a perceived social superior. Whereas, in the USA, a “snob” is someone who looks DOWN on his perceived social inferiors. English snobs are looking up; American snobs are looking down.

    In UK movies, if a character, say, decides to wear a Rolex watch, a friend might scold him with, ‘Oh, you’re such a snob.’ Many yanks won’t “catch” that particular shade of meaning…

    1. No – “toffee nosed” is derived from “toff” (not the other way around). And it isn’t scalogical. There is some debate about the origins of “toff” and whether it is a corruption of “tuft” (the aristocracy had gold tassels on their academical caps, whilst commoners had just plain tassels apparently).

      And I am not sure whether I agree with you on the nuances of the meaning of “snob”. Someone who wears a Rolex is flash and gauche – and I can think of any number of flash and gauche individuals who are obsessed with designer labels and fast cars – but whom I would not describe as snobs.

    2. Toffee-nosed derives from toff. Toff was originally a tassel on a university student’s cap – in the days when only wealthy people went to university.

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