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I'm reading "The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester, and came across a sentence I could not understand (in bold):

"No you don't, Mr. Powell." Mary burst into laughter. "So that's it. You want me for a chaperone. Victorian word, isn't? So are you, Linc. Positively atavistic."

"I brand that as a lie. In toffy circles I'm known as the most progressive---"

"And what's that image? Oh. Knights of the Round Table. Sir Galahad Powell. And there's something underneath that. I---" Suddenly she stopped laughing and turned pale.

What is the meaning of that sentence? Best I could find, toffy is another spelling for toffee, but then what are toffy circles?

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3 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

In British slang, a toff is "a rich or upper-class person." Toffy appears to be the adjective form of this word, so the phrase presumably means "rich or upper-class groups of people."

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Thanks! I didn't think of "toff". I suspected it has a similar meaning to "tea party" or "book club", so I naturally looked for a noun... –  Kobi Aug 10 '12 at 21:37
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"Toffy" may refer to the English slang "toff", meaning a pretentious person. And "circles" probably refers to a group of people.

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Toffy is an alternative spelling of toffee. By itself, toffee refers to “a type of confectionery made by boiling sugar (or treacle, etc) with butter or milk”. However, the commonly-used combination toffee-nosed is an adjective meaning “snobbish, condescending or aloof”. Wiktionary shows the combination's etymology as “Probably from toff”, a toff being “A person of the upper class- or high-class-pretence who usually communicates an air of superiority”.

Wiktionary shows no etymology for toff, but OED1 (1926) shows:

Toff vulgar. Also rarely toft. [Perh. a vulgar perversion of TUFT, as formerly applied to a nobleman or gentleman-commoner at Oxford.] An appellation given by the lower classes to a person who is stylishly dressed or who has a smart appearance; a swell; hence, one of the well-to-do, a 'nob' ...
Hence Toffish, Toffy adjs. like or characteristic of a 'toff', stylish.

OED1 entries under the toffee, toffy heading refer only to candy. The etymology is obscure:

Toffee, toffy [Of uncertain origin: app. orig. dialectal, and sometimes spelt tuffy, toughy, as if named from its toughness; but the earlier form is the northern TAFFY, q. v.]

The OED1 (1919) entry for taffy shows no etymology for its “candy” and “soft soap” senses:

Taffy¹ The earlier form of TOFFEE, now Scotch, North Eng., and American.
1. A sweetmeat made from sugar or treacle, with butter, etc. : see TOFFEE. ...
2. U. S. slang. Crude or vulgar compliment or flattery; 'soft soap'; blarney. ...
3. attrib. and Comb., as taffy stand, stick; taffy-join, a reunion of young people for the making of taffy to which each contributes. ...
Taffy² [An ascribed Welsh pronunciation of Davy or David, in Welsh Dafydd.] A familiar nickname for a Welshman: cf. Paddy, Sawney, etc.

The half-dozen OED1 cites for Taffy¹ sense 1 date from 1817 to 1890, and the cites for Toffee, toffy from 1825 to 1896. The Great Vowel Shift occurred 1350–1700.

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What does the OED say under taffy? It looks like the Great Vowel Shift at work, i.e. toffee and taffy are both phonetic renderings of the same word, but somewhere along the way, the pronunciation of the vowels changed. –  Marthaª Jan 4 '13 at 20:44
    
@Marthaª, that may be, although OED1 doesn't say (see edit) –  jwpat7 Jan 4 '13 at 21:05
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