English language

Mash notes

Q: Is the word “masher” (a guy who comes on to women) a contraction of the French “ma chère”? And by extension does the phrase “mash note” come from the same source?

A: You’re not the first person to wonder if we have “ma chère” to thank for “masher.” Back in the 1890s, the humorist Max Beerbohm wrote about the issue and concluded that “masher” actually came from the chorus of a music-hall song: “I’m the slashing, dashing, mashing Montmorency of the day.”

Around the same time, Charles Godfrey Leland, a humorist, amateur linguist, and student of gypsy culture, suggested that “masher” was derived from a Romany word meaning to entice, according to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words site. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says the verb “mash” (to put the make on someone) may indeed come from the gypsy word for entice.

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, however, offers a more prosaic explanation for the origin of “masher.” The dictionary says it probably comes from the verb “mash” as in to mash potatoes. A masher, according to Barnhart, is a man who presses or forces his attentions on a woman (think of a potato masher), trying to turn her emotions into a mash.

The word “mash,” originally meaning to mash malt or grapes, is quite old and can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “masher,” one who mashes malt or grapes, first appeared in print around 500 years ago.

The first published reference to “masher” as a man who makes advances to women dates from 1875, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. The dictionary’s earliest citation for “mash note” (initially, “mash letter”) is from 1880.

I don’t think we’ll ever know for certain the origin of “masher.” As with so many other words, the trail is as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.

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