Word Nerd: ‘Mug up’

It's important to mug up if you're a high-powered Wall Street executive with blue-chip clients like this young go-getter.

“Mug up” [mʌg- ʌp]

1. British slang: to study hard on a subject; to cram before a test

2. Nautical slang: to take a coffee break, a snack or any moment of group repose during work hours

While the origin of this idiomatic phrase is unknown, the first recorded use appears in 1860, in Britain, according to Merriam-Webster’s. An 1897 novel by the imperialist British writer Rudyard Kipling acknowledges the nautical version of the term, as does the 1937 film adaptation of the novel produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The phrase has been embraced by fishing communities and canneries throughout the English-speaking world, from Ugashik, Alaska, to Astoria, Oregon, to Gloucester, Massachusetts. The term now lives on mostly through the idiom of Scouts Canada (the northern version of The Boy Scouts of America, though unassociated) as a phrase for a snack, and according to Oxford’s Dictionary of New Slang was first noted as such in 1970.

“‘No reg’lar meals fer no one then. ’Mug-up when ye’re hungry, an’ sleep when ye can’t keep awake. Good job you wasn’t picked up a month later than you was, or we’d never ha’ had you dressed in shape fer the Old Virgin.’”

—Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous, Macmillan & Co.,1897

“Chilly? It’s a former cold storage, for crying out loud. Enjoy a coffee break, mug up, at Coffee Girl overlooking the water….”

—Jon Broderick, “Visit the Hanthorn Cannery Museum,” Coast Weekend, Dec. 15, 2016

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