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What is the origin of the expression mug up?

How did it originate? Does it give any meaning to its actual definition?

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  • 1
    This is a bit too general. Can you provide the sentence (or more) where you saw or heard this? Feb 15 '14 at 8:13
  • 1
    @Susan: How is it "too general"? Unless I'm much mistaken, to mug up only really has one meaning today, and as such it must have an etymology. Which I haven't yet looked into, so I've no idea how clear-cut the history might be, or what "original sense" it derives from. Feb 15 '14 at 13:53
  • @FumbleFingers Not a common expression in American English. Hence I think Susan's question makes sense in context.
    – David M
    Feb 17 '14 at 13:18
  • @David: I know that now! At the time I only knew one meaning which I assumed was reasonably common. I now realise that particular meaning is primarily British, doesn't necessarily include up, and isn't that common anyway. Plus there are/have been several other meanings and regional variations - Canadians (still?) mug up a big meal, for instance, whereas Brits of my generation mugged up on Shakespeare to pass Eng Lit exams. Feb 17 '14 at 13:32
  • I would gather that the equivalent American English term is "cramming" (for a test, eg). "Mug up" is either raising your beer stein or making a Donald Trump face.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 8 '15 at 13:46
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First sense

The Oxford English Dictionary's first sense for their 5th verb mug is:

1. intr. To read or study in a concentrated manner. Now freq. with up (on a subject, book, etc.); also formerly with away at, on at.

Their first quotation is from 1848 but I found a slight antedating from in The King's College Magazine of November 1841 (p.235, "Our School Days" by C.H.H.):

If I was industrious, I was sure of a thrashing from some big bully, for " mugging," instead of playing at cricket; if I was idle, I was equally sure of a caning from the master, for not " mugging."

If I was industrious, I was sure of a thrashing from some big bully, for " mugging," instead of playing at cricket; if I was idle, I was equally sure of a caning from the master, for not " mugging."


Second sense

Their second sense:

2. trans. To learn (a subject, book, etc.) by hard or concentrated study. Usu. with up.

They date this to 1868 but I found an earlier example from the 1856 Aldershottana: or, Chinks in my hut:

Anon I ordered arms, and let the men stand easy, taking a leaf from Major Coolsneer's book — viz., " Let the men stand at ease ; they are thankful for the indulgence, and look upon it as an act of grace. Meantime, you are quietly mugging up

Anon I ordered arms, and let the men stand easy, taking a leaf from Major Coolsneer's book — viz., " Let the men stand at ease ; they are thankful for the indulgence, and look upon it as an act of grace. Meantime, you are quietly mugging up on your next evolution and the proper words of command."

And from 1861's Hills and plains:

The Buffadars always prided themselves upon sticking to the regiment ; they were not like other fellows " mugging up " languages and " sucking " far and wide for staff appointments, doing all they could to shirk their duty.

Here's also an 1866.


Why mug?

The OED says the origin is unknown but perhaps related to an earlier meaning: "To pout, grow sullen; to mope." from the noun mug, a face.

My guess is it comes from having your face, your mug, close to books when studying.

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  • I've sent these antedatings to the OED.
    – Hugo
    Feb 17 '14 at 13:12
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    Wow! You sure have been mugging up on the word! OED should pay you a retainer! :) I was perfectly familiar with the term itself (though always with up), but had no idea about the origin as such. I'd have probably guessed something like mug = simpleton -> mug up = study in order to become more than a simpleton. I saw the OED definition yesterday, and supposed it must be pout, grow sullen, furrow one's brow, pull a face while studying intently, but I'm now solidly behind your pore over, put your face close to, bury your head in the textbook guess. Good stuff. Feb 17 '14 at 13:45
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The term mug up has had various meanings since the 19th century, including to kiss passionately (Austral.), and to paint one's face.

Nowadays in Britain it means to do some concentrated study, (e.g., for an exam, related word - 'cram'), or to bring oneself up to speed quickly with some field of knowledge.

The OED indicates many examples of mug used in the sense of concentrated study. But it is only in recent decades that the up has been added.

It is a ditransitive verb, section 1 below relating to intransitive use and section 2 to transitive.

The OED dates its use from the 19th century, but of origin unknown.

  1. intr. To read or study in a concentrated manner. Now freq. with up (on a subject, book, etc.); also formerly with away at, on at.
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    Take a look at the fifth entry for the verb mug, where two definitions are given. The intransitive one is ‘To read or study in a concentrated manner. Now freq. with up (on a subject, book, etc.)'. The transitive definition is ‘To learn (a subject, book, etc.) by hard or concentrated study. Usu. with up.’ The origin is unknown, but may be related to the definition given in the third entry, ‘To pout, grow sullen; to mope’. Feb 15 '14 at 9:23
  • @BarrieEngland No mention of that in the on-line version of OED that I am using. Meaning 5 is all about Jazz - though there is a reference under 3 to 'pulling a face'.
    – WS2
    Feb 15 '14 at 9:36
  • There's only one on-line version of the OED. The fifth entry for ‘mug’ is here: oed.com/view/Entry/123337?rskey=IzTcFY&result=11#eid Feb 15 '14 at 9:56
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    I have a possible origin in my mind but it's pure guesswork. Mug is a cup used to drink a beverage. May be someday John drank David's mug of wine and David said to bartender "I won't pay anything. John mugged up all my wine[David was angry and that affected his sense responsible for word selection]". Some guy heard David and later at some point in future, he used it in front of his friends like "I have to go home and mug up my history book before the exam[i have to drink up the contents of my history book]".Friends thought it was cool so they started using it as well and the phrase was born.
    – Sandeep D
    Feb 15 '14 at 16:32
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    @BarrieEngland Right, I can see what I was doing differently to you. I was searching the verb 'mug up', you were searching the verb 'mug'; and a completely different set of pages was coming up. It sounds ridiculous but the only way of getting that particular meaning of 'mug up' is to look under 'mug' and NOT under 'mug up'. I will edit my answer accordingly.
    – WS2
    Feb 15 '14 at 22:21
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The expression "mug up" also appears in Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library, in which the character Raymond Starr says, "The trouble I took to mug up that bit about the Devonshire Starrs...Oh, well, my luck's out. Dance, dance, little gentleman." In this context, it almost seems (to me) that it means "make up a fictitious story".

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Onboard a ship, the term mug up meant "pick up your mug while being served a beverage or it will spill all over". Especially during choppy or large seas.

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    Please provide some sort of reference for this.
    – p.s.w.g
    Jun 6 '14 at 19:38
  • I am very suspicious of alleged naval or maritime origins: they are usually false.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 2 '20 at 9:27

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