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A toff is a member of the nobility, well-to-do, stylishly dressed and handsome in behavior toward his or her social inferiors.

It remains a term of admiration, having escaped the sense of “stuck up” picked up by some similar words, such as “posh.” It is similar to the more American “swell.”

With the aristocracy in terminal decline, the word may not be heard often any more, but it is still useful on occasion, if tinged with nostalgia. It evokes a different age, when people were content to have been born to different estates in life, and when the upper classes were judged not by whether they did any useful work, but by how they treated those members of the lower orders with whom they came into contact.

“I had a toff in the back of me cab yesterday,” a taxi driver might say. That probably means the passenger was unusually well-dressed and spoke in soft and plummy tones. Or he might say, “Thanks guv’nor, you’re a real toff,” if you sound educated, engage in conversation during the journey and give him a generous tip.

The word probably comes from “tuft,” which was applied to the gold tassel worn by titled undergraduates at Oxford University until about the mid-19th century. In vulgar English, the dropping of a final “t” is not unusual. Neither is adding it, and ironically “tuft” probably started life without it, having derived via French from the Latin “tufa,” a kind of crest.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at: uknews@estripes.osd.mil


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