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I find myself using the phrase "that's using your noggin" in various situations, even though English is not my native language. Most likely I picked it up watching some tv show.

I understand that "noggin" means head, but it seems strange that "that's using your noggin" should be in widespread (in America, I assume) use, although it's not only used in this context.

What is the origin of this expression?

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    Could you give examples of it being used not in the context of "That's using your head"? I can't think of any examples of it being used in any other context? – Omar Kooheji Feb 1 '11 at 11:52
  • The phrase simply means "using your brain". It's usually applied with a straight-forward meaning, implying that thoughtfulness was indeed employed, but may sometimes be used in an ironic or jocular sense when the subject of the phrase does something stupid. – Hot Licks Jan 9 '15 at 1:15
  • Use of 'noggin' to mean "head" is known to be attested from 1769 (OED, "boxing slang"). – JEL Jan 9 '17 at 21:12
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"Your noggin" is colloquial for "your head". Origin of noggin is as follows ( from the Online Etymology Dictionary):

1620s, "small cup, mug," later "small drink" (1690s), of unknown origin, possibly related to Norfolk dialectal nog "strong ale" (now chiefly in eggnog). Informal meaning "head" first attested 1866 in Amer.Eng.

So it means "using your head", the assumption is that you used your brain, implying that you had a good idea. Alternatively you could have head-butted something...

  • Yes, I did look up "noggin", and found out that it means "head". However, what I really wanted to ask about was the entire expression. I added a bit more text to the question that might clarify this. – Vetle Jan 20 '11 at 14:49
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I don't believe the term "noggin" is restricted to the phrase "That's using your noggin!" in normal usage in America. I have heard and used it in the following way:

I stopped playing baseball because I got hit in the noggin pretty hard.

... or some such.

Depending on the context (your audience), you could substitute "noggin" for "head" whenever you want. That is, I consider it slang and probably wouldn't use it in a formal situation.

  • Ok, perhaps the "noggin" is more widely used, I've removed the assumption from my question. I'm also wondering if perhaps this issue is more localized, because I'm not the only one using the expression "that's using your noggin" in my social network, but I have no idea where everyone picked it up. Still looking for info about that particular expression, though. :) – Vetle Jan 20 '11 at 16:42
  • Well, my point is that there is no special origin for "That's using your noggin", but there is for "noggin" itself (see Omar's answer). – Chris Dwyer Jan 20 '11 at 16:48
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J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) finds examples of noggin in the slang sense of "head" going back to 1859 but with reference to the 1820s:

noggin n {prob. noggin 'a small mug'} the head; (hence) the mind; consciousness; in phr. off one's noggin insane. Now colloq. [First three cited examples:] 1859 "Skit" Fisher's River 35 {ref. to 1820's}: The first idea that entered his noggin" was that he was in a general "still-house" fight. Ibid. 53: I...turned my noggin round to look for the critter. 1865 Byrn Fudge Fumble 205: Down I brought it over Paddy's noggin. 1880 in S. Dennison Scandalize My Name 274: He hit me cross my noggin wid a great big chunk of wood.

Lighter's first cited instance of the idiomatic phrase "off [one's] noggin" is from 1942:

1942 Davis and Woolsey Call House Madam 46: The guy who said he wanted a woman with common sense eas off his noggin.

And Lighter's first match for "use [one's] noggin" is from 1975:

1975 Mahl Beating Bookie 47: That's where you have to use your noggin!


Early real-world matches for 'noggin' in the sense of 'head'

The earliest match that a search of the Chronicling America newspaper database finds for noggin in its original "mug" sense is from a letter from "The Learned Pig" to the editor of the [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Gazette of the United States & Daily Advertiser (July 17, 1800):

Being informed by a friend and countryman of mine (an Irish Gentleman) that there was an advertisement made its appearance in your paper a few days ago, offering a reward, to any one who should return a noggin of Gin to Jasper Dwight Esq. whom you in a mistake of the press call Jasper Traytor; and conceiving the publication was pointed at me, as we were seen in company, together late one evening at a certain public house, which we are in the habit of frequenting, this is to inform you and the public in general, that the whole is a base fabrication of some Malicious person (no doubt an Aristocrat) with a design to make a breach between my cousin and me as the liquor was clubbed and fairly drunk between us.

The first search result that uses noggin as slang for head is from a letter from "Æsop" dated March 14, 1844, to the editor of the Holly Springs Gazette (March 30, 1844):

The next thing uppermost in my noggin is the vast convalescence of our city [Greensboro, in Choctaw County]. The price of boards, poles, and sich like, has riz considerably. The morals of the city are evidently "looking up."

Also, from a mock ballad titled "Dream," in the Ypsilanti [Michigan] Sentinel (August 22, 1844):

'Help Cassius, I sink,' says Jimmy, says he,/ And Blair made a grab as he called;/ But Jimmy's top knot like the Irishman's flea/ Was'nt there, for his noggin was bald, &c./ Was'nt there for his noggin was bald.

Jimmy (identified earlier in the ballad as "Jimmy K.") may be James Knox Polk, who was elected President of the United States on November 5, 1844. Polk wasn't bald, however, so the Jimmy K. here may refer to someone else.

From an unsigned letter dated May 17, 1845, to the editor of the [Raleigh] North Carolina Standard (May 21, 1845):

And now for uncle Jake's mill Dam. It's Broke loose, and no Mistake; and the old man's properle bilin' over. He says if He ever gits the feller by the ears as Sot the sills together, he'll beat Yankee-doodle-dandy-dee (gracious me!) upon His Noggin. And I reckon He will.

And from "Sam Crookshank; or The Medicated Axe," in the Sumter [South Carolina] Banner (March 22, 1848):

'Why it [dyspepsia] makes me feel all over solemncholy and down in the mouth like, as if I'd lost all my friends. In short, Mr. Whippletree, it's a kind of a—sort of an affection of the stomach and indigestible noggins, as it were.'

'The complaint is in your noggin I've no doubt,' said the farmer, pointing to his head—'at least it began there—but I can cure your stomach for you, if that's all you want.'


Early real-world matches for 'use [one's] noggin'

Elephind searches for various forms of "use [one's] noggin" yield results going back to 1936. From "Corsairs engage U.S.C. Frosh Friday Night," in the [Santa Monica, California] Corsair (November 4, 1936):

The end play has been outstanding, with Fisk perhaps the most versatile of the wingmen. Little, if any, ground has been gained around the flanks of the Trobabes, and Corsair backs will have a tough time trying to negotiate them. In the backfield at quarterback Doyle Nave has shown plenty of power and an ability to use his noggin. Coupled with Slaughter at fullback, the two touchdown twins have been responsible for most of the yearlings' scores.

From "Gridiron Heroes," in the Breckenridge [Texas] American (November 17, 1936):

Heffelfinger made the All-America team three times in a row, not only through his brute force, but because he was a gridder who knew knew how to use his noggin. In his day the finest compliment you could pay an opponent was to say, "He nearly held his own against Heffelfinger."

And from "Taps Win 3 to 1 Over Stony Point," in the [Nyack, New York] Journal-News (October 7, 1939):

Left-footed Tom Kubanik booted one home in the third session to put the victors out front 2-0. It was the best goal of the day as Tom used his noggin to send it in. The final Piermont score came in final period when Charley Coffey found the range after a mixnup.

It isn't clear how Tom used his noggin to boot one home, but the reporter seems not to have considered the matter worth explaining. The word mixnup in the next sentence is probably a typo.


Conclusions

Th phrase "use [one's] noggin" is a natural variant of "use [one's] head" (meaning "think"), once noggin emerged a slang term meaning "head." This development seems to have taken place no later than 1844, although initially it seems to have been treated by newspapers as a rustic usage.

A search for "use [one's] noggin" yields matches for the phrase starting in 1936, but I wouldn't be surprised if people were using the phrase decades earlier. The fact that the first two matches involve articles about U.S. football is interesting but probably merely coincidental.

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I'm 70, and my Nordic family came from the Minnesota area, both sides coming over on the boat from the 1840s to the 1890s, and the term NOGGIN was always about the head, but normally it was more about you doing something that involved creative thinking. "That's using your NOGGIN."

I just purchased a pewter, one noggin and one half noggin set of cups, one piece, shaped like an hourglass, with the smaller cup used as a base. This thing is loaded with hallmark stamps, because it was a measuring tool used like a set of shot glasses in early Irish pubs. It's beaten up, but one set of stamps are WR, which I think represents King William the third, 1689-1702.

These public house measuring cups had to be periodically re-inspected and re-approved, otherwise crooked pub owners would grind the edges down and cheat the public. Hence, the dozen or so stampings on these cups. A lettered stamping reads GR NOGGIN, which I think means a re-verification during one of the subsequent reins of either George the second or George the third. "Georgevous Rex"

According to pewterbank.com, the Irish NOGGIN was 3.9 Imperial liquid ounces, and the so-called half, was 2 liquid ounces even. This set of cups gave surety in an unsure world. It proved honesty in an unsophisticated public venue for over a century. It was flexible, measuring any liquid, as well as being used for other things, such as a straightforward drinking cup, or an egg cup to eat out of, be it eggs from a chicken or a larger goose. Is this where we get the term "eggnog"? I don't know, but this thing had potentials to be used in many ways.

This was a smartly made instrument used and trusted for many things in a pre-industrial world, by a largely unschooled population. How far of a stretch is it to take that understanding and make it a metaphor regarding the use of nimble thinking and imagination while solving a number of different problems? Just a speculation on my part, but I handle this thing, and marvel at the thousands of folks who must have put it to untold numbers of uses, over the last three-hundred plus years.

Ray Harris

  • Hello, Ray. Interesting, of course, but have you any attested usages of 'using one's / his ... noggin' pre-dating the 1936 one in Sven's answer? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 21 '18 at 0:11
  • Unfortunately, no. Language is normally "unattested" long before it becomes part of the written language. The Kensington Rune Stone is testament to that. I haven't thought of a noggin for forty years, because the people I knew who used the term are dead. I doubt if my kids have ever heard me use the phrase, which is unfortunate, at their ages of 38 and 32. – Ray Harris Feb 21 '18 at 9:29
  • The snag is that ELU virtually requires corroborated rather than anecdotal responses as 'answers'. Unsupported answers come across as opinion, misunderstandings, niche rather than standard usages. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 21 '18 at 19:58
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A noggin as a mug was made in Germanic cultures to look like a head. It was a caricature of a head and ugly like a troll's head. So when used to refer to a person's head it has the meaning of the person's head and implies that the person is ugly. Hence, "Use your noggin" and "Got hit in the noggin" both work.

  • This is interesting, but without any sources, I am skeptical of it's influence on English. Can you expand with some references? I think it would be great if it were true. – hunterhogan Mar 2 '15 at 23:00
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I'm an American and I grew up using the word noggin. I've heard it said "that's using your noggin" from my parents and grandparents on both sides of the family. Noggin is slang for head or brain and almost anyone over 30 years old in America would think head or brain depending on the sentence, if you were to use the word noggin. Using "that's using your noggin" means you've done something good or figured out a problem. It's also a double slang or pun if you will, if some one were to use their head to break something or bumped his head, You might hear "that's using your noggin or head". Same if you injured your head, you might hear it as an insult because they didn't think before they did something and got hurt or hurt their head, (Well that was using your noggin). I'm guessing of course, but both sides of my family are from the Midwest of America Indiana,Kentucky or Tennessee around there in that area is where it most likely started, and it's just a saying using a slang word. I've also heard and used gourd, melon, airbag for head. Airbag is a more resent slang term. I guess more of a slander than the average term. The term noggin isn't heard much now days except by older folks being slightly comical or making friendly light hearted comments.

  • Hello, Jack. Anecdotal material should really be restricted to 'comments' on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 21 '18 at 0:08
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Skoggin, which rimes with noggin, is Ojibwa for head. Oxieskoggin means headache. There was plenty of time for this to get to England by 1700. Oxieskoggin could also refer to a hangover.

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    If you could add a source, this would be a valuable answer. :) – anongoodnurse Feb 14 '14 at 6:30

protected by tchrist Aug 20 '18 at 19:26

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