The Grammarphobia Blog

Rogues’ galleries and mug books

Q: A photo of various politicians made me think of that great term from British crime stories—“rogues’ gallery.” Americans use the less classy “mug book.” Any thoughts on the origins of these two expressions? Are women included in a rogues’ gallery?

A: As it turns out, “rogues’ gallery” originated in the US in the mid-19th century as a term for the collected images of known criminals. The first written use of the noun phrase referred to NYPD daguerreotypes of not just men and women, but also boys and girls.

All six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, American and British, have entries for “rogues’ gallery” in that sense. However, none of the dictionaries, which focus on contemporary usage, include “mug book,” a term that’s in slang dictionaries as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Standard dictionaries now use the plural possessive “rogues’ gallery,” but the term was a singular possessive when it first appeared in print, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Dec. 5, 1857, issue of the New York Times: “There must be positive proof that the man or woman, girl or boy, whose likeness is added to the Rogue’s Gallery of the Detective Police, is an incorrigible offender.”

Oxford defines “rogues’ gallery” as “a collection of photographs of known criminals, used to identify suspects; (in extended use) any collection of people or things notable for a certain shared quality or characteristic, esp. a disreputable one.”

The earliest OED example of the extended sense is a headline in an American magazine (Popular Mechanics, September 1923): “Rogue’s gallery of pests is kept for farmers.”

This more recent example is even more extended: “Bob Dylan, Arthur Lee, Keith Richard, Bob Marley—the rogue’s gallery of rebel input that forms the hard stuff at the centre of rock” (from Bob Marley and the Roots of Reggae, 1977, by Cathy McKnight and John Tobler).

The term still shows up in its original sense in both the US and the UK. For instance, an article in the New York Post on March 19, 2016, describes the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list as “a rogues’ gallery of murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, child abusers and armed robbers with zero regard for human life.” And this headline appeared on July 22, 2016, in the Sun (London): “Cops release second rogues’ gallery of Hyde Park water fight troublemakers.”

A search of newspaper and magazine databases suggests that the extended usage is more common now than the original sense. Here are a few recent examples from the New York Times:

“Among the rogues’ gallery of Romanov pretenders who emerge in the aftermath, a young woman surfaced in 1920 claiming to be Princess Anastasia” (Book Review, Aug. 10, 2018).

“As the more astute analyses of the Russia story have pointed out, the corruption allegedly engineered by a rogues’ gallery of Russian politicians, businessmen, intelligence agents and cybercriminals would not be possible without a ready-made architecture of American graft waiting for them to exploit” (TV review, May 20, 2018).

“As the rogues’ gallery of fallen world leaders grows, you might be tempted to conclude that ours is the most corrupt era in history” (Magazine, May 2, 2018).

As for “mug book,” the term has been used since the early 20th century to mean “a book containing photographs of people’s faces, esp. in police records,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1902 collection of sketches by Clarence Louis Cullen that originally appeared in the New York Sun:

“I’d often seen him in New York, and I’d seen his mush in Byrnes’s mug book, too.” (The passage, from More Ex-Tank Tales, refers to a scam artist who sells counterfeit gold bricks. The ex-tank, or ex-tankard, tales are supposedly told during “deliberations of the Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degenerates”).

The term “mug shot,” which the OED defines as “a photograph of a person’s face, esp. in police or other official records,” showed up a half-century later. The dictionary’s first example is a 1950 citation from the Dictionary of American Slang (1960), compiled and edited by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner:

“When police passed around a mug shot of Willie yesterday, 11 of 17 employees of the Queens Boulevard branch of the Manufacturers Trust Co. named him on the spot as the gang leader.” (We’ve expanded the citation, which comes from an AP story that appeared in newspapers on March 10, 1950. It refers to the American bank robber Willie Sutton.)

The terms “mug shot” and “mug book” ultimately come from the slang use of the noun “mug” to mean a face, especially an unattractive one—a usage that showed up in the early 1700s. As the OED explains, the slang usage is “perhaps in allusion to the drinking mugs made to represent a grotesque human face which were common in the 18th cent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the slang usage is from a short-lived London journal, the British Apollo, Feb. 13-18, 1708: “My Lawyer has a Desk, nine Law-books without Covers, two with Covers, a Temple-Mug, and the hopes of being a Judge.” The term “Temple-Mug” here apparently means a typical face in the Temple legal district of London.

In the late 19th century, the word “mug” came to mean a “photograph or other likeness of a person’s face, esp. in police or other official records. The earliest Oxford citation is from a New Orleans newspaper, the Lantern, July 9, 1887: “He had his mug taken in fireman’s clothes.”

Finally, here’s an expanded OED example from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely:

I sat down at the vacant desk and Nulty turned over a photo that was lying face down on his desk and handed it to me. It was a police mug, front and profile, with a fingerprint classification underneath. It was Malloy all right, taken in a strong light, and looking as if he had no more eyebrows than a French roll.

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