“Give a Toss”

From today’s New York Times, an article about the all-girl rock band the Go-Gos:

“Here were five women from my homeland, in angular haircuts and thrift-store miniskirts, tauntingly singing about their own public shaming — and not giving a toss.”

The author, Evelyn McDonnell, says that in 1981, when the band debuted, she was “a California-born punk-rock pirate marooned at a Midwestern public high school.”

Yet she uses the British expression “give a toss.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang‘s first citation for “toss” used this way is George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda. (“I don’t care a toss where you are.”) All subsequent citations are from British or Commonwealth sources until a 2012 American story called “Topless Vampire Bitches”: “A real horro nerd, Jimmy […] A shame that no one else gave a toss.”

It’s a nice NOOB. While it means the same as “give a hoot” or “give a fig,” it has a nice salty air to it–though there’s apparently no connection to the truly salty “tosser.”

13 thoughts on ““Give a Toss”

  1. I think (though I don’t know) that the ‘toss’ referred to here is not connected with a ‘tosser’ but more likely to be a toss of the dice. I would guess that the usage ‘give a toss’ pre-dates the usage of ‘toss’ meaning ‘masturbate’ (i.e., ‘tosser’ = ‘wanker’). It would need further research to ascertain this, if indeed some so evanescent as this kind of slang could be ascertained.

    1. It really is related to ‘tosser’. It has nothing to do with tossing dice, but with ‘tossing off’, i.e. masturbating.

  2. I’ve seen it expanded to “I don’t give a tuppenny toss” (“tuppenny” = two pre-decimal pence) which would tie in with the sense of tossing coins but tuppence was also apparently the going rate for a discreet act of manual relief from an 18th-century prostitute… which takes us back to “tosser”. And, just to confuse things, tuppence is also a slang term for the female genitalia.

    1. “I don’t give a tuppenny toss” is probably an adaptation of a half-remembered phrase. The Duke of Wellington didn’t care a twopenny damn what became of the body of Napoleon – a damn being a low-value Indian coin.

  3. As a California punk rocker in the 1980s, she would have been thoroughly steeped in the cockney slang which informed that movement. I probably first heard the phrase myself on the 1978 Crass LP, “Feeding of the 5000,” which includes the lines (warning: explicit/offensive lyrics ahead)

    So what if Jesus died on the cross.
    So what about the fucker, I don’t give a toss

    Which was distributed widely in the USA. Unless it starts showing up in non-punk contexts, I’d say this is likely to remain a bit of a rarity.

  4. Dice are thrown, coins are tossed. A die would have six outcomes, but a tossed coin is binary, the equivalent of take it or leave it.

    Brits are familiar with a coin toss determining a 50/50 outcome. Part of weekly British language is that all football matches are preceded by the toss of a coin. (That would be the round ball game that the world plays).

    “Tosser” and “wanker” are indeed interchangeable, the former being the more polite version. The word never refers to the physical act (masturbator), but is, invariably, lad on lad banter, referring to someone (male) as a self-indulgent, waste of time.

    The toss of a coin in, “I don’t give a toss,” is clearly non-sexual, although I have occasionally heard lad banter, “I don’t give a wank”.

    Whatever connection there is between “toss” and “tosser” would appear to be retroactive.

  5. Ben, you may soon have to include ‘toss off’ as a noob. It’s been used (correctly, though the original probably omitted ‘myself’) by an American before a US audience, 10 minutes 21 secs into this video:

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