The Grammarphobia Blog

Why a pet peeve is an uggie

Q: I see a question on your blog in which the word “uggie” is used to describe a pet peeve. I consider myself intelligent and well read, but I’ve never heard it. Is “uggie” a modern derivative of “ugly”? Is it pronounced like UGG boots?

A: It’s more than likely that “uggie,” used as both a noun and an adjective, is derived from “ugly.” We haven’t found any published evidence that would prove this definitively, but it seems obvious. And yes, the “ugg” part is pronounced as in the boots, but we’ll get to the footwear later.

When a questioner referred to “irregardless” in 2007 as “No. 1 on my list of ‘uggies,’ ” we assumed that it was being used lightheartedly to mean something ugly. Since then, we’ve used it the same way a couple of times on the blog.

Standard dictionaries, even most slang dictionaries, don’t mention this use of “uggie.” But Urban Dictionary, a collaborative online reference written by users, has these definitions for the adjective:

“Uggie: Unpleasant or repulsive, esp. in appearance,” and “arousing revulsion or strong indignation. Being disgusting, gross and/or vile.”

And a reader of the Collins Dictionary has submitted “uggie” as a “Word Suggestion,” for a noun meaning “an ugly person.”

Despite the lack of information in standard references, we’ve found evidence that “uggie” (sometimes spelled “uggy”) has long been used to represent baby talk for “ugly.”

This passage is from a short story about a person who’s considered unattractive: “Little Mollie often came and lisped, ‘Me sorry you uggy!’ ” (From “Love the Transformer,” by Mrs. E. L. Griffith, published in September 1867 in Arthur’s Home Magazine, Philadelphia.)

This one is from a British novel, John Darker (1895), by Aubrey Lee: “ ‘You must never be rude, my beautiful boy,’ and he passed a caressing hand over the baby face; ‘rudeness is very, very ugly.’ ‘Welly, welly uggy,’ repeated Percy.”

And Clipped Wings (1899), by the Canadian novelist Lottie McAlister, has a scene in which the grown-up heroine complains about the unattractive dog and cat portraits that have been clumsily embroidered on a pair of floor mats.

She imagines childishly destroying the mats “while her baby tongue lisped, ‘Bad pussy, uggie pussy, tooked pussy; uggie, uggie doggie.’ ” (Our guess is that “tooked” here may mean “crooked.”)

A more recent illustration is from History, a 1977 translation of La Storia, a 1974 novel by the Italian writer Elsa Morante.

In one scene, a little boy tears up an illustrated magazine, “repeating his mother’s words: ‘It’s uggy’ (ugly).” Elsewhere, it’s explained that the child says “uggy” because he’s too young to manage the “gl” consonant cluster.

Another modern example is from a feature article about foods that small children hate. One boy says, “Lima beans are so uggie.” (From the April 17, 1985, issue of the Philadelphia Daily News. Most of the kids quoted preferred the word “yucky.”)

Even adults have used “uggie” to mean “ugly” since the 19th century, perhaps in imitation of baby talk.

The English writer John Ruskin used baby talk throughout his extensive correspondence with his favorite cousin, Joan Severn. He writes on Oct. 9, 1887: “I sent also the 4th Folk [part of a work on the Italian peasantry] with a pretty bit added to replace the uggie one taken out.”

A glossary in John Ruskin’s Correspondence with Joan Severn, a collection published in 2009, defines “uggie” as “ugly.”

And here’s the noun, in a reference to a woman in a bar. The writer, a college student, takes up a position “conveniently proximate to an uggie and a wowie, and as is usually the case, the uggie did all the talking.” (From the Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper, Sept. 8, 1972.)

As we said, standard slang dictionaries don’t include this use of “uggie.” The only ones that mention it at all define it as meaning “ugg boots,” the ungainly, flat-soled footwear with sheepskin on the inside and untanned leather on the outside.

However, the name for the boots apparently does come from the word “ugly.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, for example, says the noun “uggies” means “ugg boots,” and is derived from “ugly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang (which like Cassells is edited by Jonathon Green) says that “ugg boots” (as well as the variations “ug boots,” “uggies,” and “ugh boots”) is derived from “ugly” and originated as an Australian term for “sheepskin boots or slippers.”

The earliest written reference in Green’s Dictionary (to “ugh boots”) is from 1951, though an Australian legislator has suggested that the term is much older.

“In Australia, we have been calling sheepskin boots ‘ugg boots’ for about 85 years,” Sharryn Jackson, a member of the Australian House of Representatives, said in a speech before the House on Feb. 11, 2004.

The footwear spelled “ugg boots,” “ug boots,” “ugh boots” (and more recently “uggies”) was first used by sheep ranchers Down Under and was adopted in the 1960s by Australian surfers to warm their cold feet.

California surfers borrowed the trend in the 1970s, and the ungainly boots became popular in the US, first as beachwear and then as an urban fashion statement.

After almost two decades of brand-name disputes, UGG is now a registered trademark in most countries of the California-based Deckers Brands. But not in Australia and New Zealand, where “ugg” and “ugg boots” remain generic terms.

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