If you were to look up in the dictionary what the word ‘mug‘ means, it would say something like ‘a large cup with a handle used for drinking hot beverages’. That seems simple enough, but you would also see that it can mean the face or expression of a person, and it can be a verb, meaning to rob or attack someone. You might also notice related words like, ‘mug shot’, which is a picture taken of a person by the police when they commit a crime. The relationship between these meanings may seem quite distant, but, in fact they, are all related.
To see the relationship, you will need to go back to Scandinavia, where the origins of the word ‘mug’ can be traced. It is similar to the Swedish and Norwegian words used for a drinking cup for warm drinks. Just like today, people often favored decorated or interesting looking mugs. Since a big roundish cup looks like a head of a person, people often made mugs to look like people’s heads with various expressions on the faces. The expressions were often funny or scary, so in time, the word ‘mug’ took on the meaning of a face, or especially an attention attracting expression.
How did this meaning become related to violence and crime? Well, people that attacked other people in order to take their money or other valuables, would hit their victims in the face. By the 1800’s criminals used the word as slang for attacking a person, especially a person with an expression on their face that made them appear vulnerable, innocent, weak or even foolish. People like this were easy targets. This has led to the common British English usage of ‘mug’ to mean a fool or easily deceived person. As a side note, these ‘muggy’ people were sometimes easy targets because they were drunk (and often considered ‘damp’ or ‘wet’ because of being exposed to a large amount of liquid), as well as ‘foggy-brained’ in the sense that they didn’t think clearly. This is where the weather expression ‘muggy’ meaning humid comes from.
Expression: The look on someone’s face, such as a smile, frown, sneer etc.
Easy target: A person, place or thing that seems likely to be attacked of influenced.
It’s all about the mug!