Why Do We Use the Word ‘Mug’ as a Synonym for ‘Face’?

How a love of drinking and Britain’s 18th-century Toby jugs might have inspired the slang word for ‘face.’
Toby mugs in a market stall.
Toby mugs in a market stall. / Michael Blann/Photodisc/Getty Images

Get caught breaking the law, and you’ll likely be hauled down to the police station so officers can snap a few photos of your face. The reason we call those images “mug shots” is because the word mug is slang for face. And while there’s no definitive trail of evidence to prove how mug first took on that meaning, most signs point to the Toby jugs of 18th-century Britain.

What Jugs Have To Do With It

According to the American Toby Jug Museum in Illinois, the original Toby jugs were ceramic pitchers shaped and painted to resemble “a seated, jovial, stout man dressed in the attire of the period, wearing a tricorn hat, puffing on a pipe, and holding a mug of ale.”

As for who Toby actually was, it’s still up for debate. Some people believe he was inspired by Sir Toby Belch, the boisterous party animal from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Others think he was modeled after Henry Elwes, one of Yorkshire’s most infamous drinkers from the era. Elwes was fondly nicknamed “Toby Philpot” (or “Fillpot”) and immortalized in a drinking song called “The Brown Jug.”

A Toby Jug made by Ralph Wood the Younger between 1782 and 1795.
A Toby Jug made by Ralph Wood the Younger between 1782 and 1795. / Andreas Praefcke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“In boozing about ’twas his pride to excel, and amongst jolly topers he bore off the bell,” the song says of Toby, who is described as “a thirsty old soul” who sits “with a friend and a pipe, puffing sorrow away.” Toby dies suddenly, and his body eventually deteriorates into the clay beneath the grave. The story ends after a potter happens upon that patch of clay and uses it to make a brown jug for ale.

From Jug to Mug

As time progressed, potters started producing receptacles that bore likenesses of other people and characters, too. While the original Toby jugs depicted a whole man and featured a spout for pouring liquid, many later iterations were drinking mugs that showed only the subject’s face.

Winston Churchill Toby Mug
Winston Churchill Toby mug. / Brian Seed/GettyImages

The faces were somewhat caricaturish, which may explain why the word mug is often used to describe an unattractive face, a funny facial expression, or even a foolish person. Since not many suspects manage to look their best in a mug shot, the colloquialism seems especially apt.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2024.