toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Discuss word origins and meanings.
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toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by John Barton » Thu Oct 01, 2009 10:34 am

Used in New Zealand, perhaps elsewhere, to mean "the mains water tap outside your house". Some decades ago, they were always inside the garden, near the road boundary; now the council moves them onto the 'berm' or strip of grass by the pavement. A very common word for which no-one questions the origin. It seems to be short for "toby tap"; 'toby' is an old word for highway, with derivatives such as 'tobyman', a highwayman. But that is just my conjecture - any ideas?
Then there is Toby Jugg, and the question whether a famous highway robber was named Toby, or Tobias was a common name among the profession.
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Signature: John Barton, New Plymouth, New Zealand

Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Oct 02, 2009 11:15 pm

John, Sounds to me that you have it about right. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word TOBY as thieves' slang: THE TOBY: the highway as the resort of robbers; ‘the road’ . . . Hence toby verb transitive, to rob on the highway; tobyman, a highwayman [[a common street thief (as well as his act) was known as a ‘low toby,’ and a mounted highwayman (as well as his act) was called a ‘high toby’]. And provides its origin as the follows:

Etymology: Apparently. altered (?through toba', toba) from tobar, the word for ‘road’ in Shelta, the cant or secret language of the Irish tinkers]

So, it seems to all fit together. The TOBY TAP or WATER TOBY (see quotes below) means “the main's water tap [[valve]] outside your house,” as opposed to one inside the house, which we have in my neck of the woods. And as you say, the connection to ‘road’ is that it was earlier located “near the road boundary.”

And I dug up the following quotes from news archives:
<2001 “‘Many properties are having problems with the water toby and pipes being frozen.’ . . . He urged owners of unoccupied houses in Hanmer to get someone to check the pipes and turn the water off at the toby tap.”—New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 9 July>

<2006 “A concrete chamber sunk into the earth from a ‘water toby' - a device similar to a hydrant which is used to turn the water supply on and off - was blamed for the disruption to the land.”—Evening News (Scotland), 28 April>

<2009 “The inability of some Wanaka and Queenstown residents to locate their water toby may mean they face a $200 callout fee.”—Ortago Times (New Zealand), 22 July>
As for TOBY JUG (unrelated to the ‘toby tap / water toby’), I found it to be rhyming slang for the word MUG:


MUG noun [early 19th century and still in use]: A fool, a dupe, originally the victim of a corrupt card-game.

TOBY JUG noun [20th century and still in use]: A fool [rhyming slang toby jug = mug [[the ‘fool' mug and not the ‘beer’ mug – interesting coincidence!]]


TOBY JUG: A mug, a fool [from a type of jug [[the TOBY JUG]] in the shape of a man dressed in a frock-coat and three-cornered hat, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries]

TOBY, the above beer mug fellow (dressed in a frock-coat and three-cornered hat) of the TOBY JUG, was a character by the name of Toby Filpot from an 18th-century song. But, the song was not the famous Little Brown Jug of 1869 by J. Winner (“Ha, ha, ha, you and me, Little Brown Jug don’t I love thee”) that we all know and love, as the following article mistakenly states (the author had the century right, however, he got his jugs mixed up), but was a song titled Brown Jug (1783):

WESTERN MAIL (Cardiff, Wales), November 23, 2002:

Toby Jug up for Grabs: There will be a rare opportunity to buy a Lloyd George Toby jug during a live auction on the S4C programme, Twrio, at 7.30pm tonight.

The jug (anticipated price: pounds 580), which depicts the Welsh statesman in uniform, was produced just after the end of World War I by A J Wilkinson Ltd at the company's Royal Staffordshire Pottery.
It is one of a series of eleven Toby jugs produced between 1915 and 1919 which depict Allied Commanders of World War I.

The series was designed by F. Carruthers Gould (1844-1925), a famous British political cartoonist, and is regarded as one of the finest ever produced.

The origin of the Toby jug is obscure, but examples of similar jugs can be found in several countries - even as far afield as Peru. The jug, also called a `filpot', is named after Toby Filpot, the drunken character in the 18th-century song Little Brown Jug [[written in 1869]]. In Britain, Toby jugs were first made in the Potteries in Staffordshire in the latter half of the 18th century.

They were also made by the Cambrian pottery in Swansea for a short while around 1800.

Initially, they were inexpensive and used for pouring ale in taverns and middle-class homes, but they soon became popular as decorative items, and started to become collectible early in the 20th century.
The first Toby jugs depicted a portly gentleman with a tri-cornered hat seated on a barrel drinking a mug of ale, smoking a clay pipe or taking snuff.

However, in the Victorian period, Toby jug makers began putting famous sportsmen, statesmen, military figures and literary figures on their jugs. In the 20th century, the person most often depicted on a Toby jug was Winston Churchill.

THE BROWN JUG from the opera The Poor Soldier (1783) by John O’Keeffe

[Note: The song itself is attributed to the Rev. Francis Fawkes who imitated it from the Latin of Hieronymus Amaltheus (1507-1574)]

Dear Tom, this brown jug, that now foams with mild ale,
(In which I will drink to sweet Nan of the vale),
Was once Toby Filpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er cracked a bottle, or fathom’d a bowl,
In boozing about ‘twas his praise to excel,
And among jolly topers he bore off the bell.

It chanced, as in dog-days he sat at his ease,
In his flow’r-woven arbour, as gay as you please,
With a friend and a pipe, puffing sorrow away,
And with honest old stingo was soaking his clay,
His breath-doors of life on a sudden were shut,
And he died full as big as a Dorchester butt.

His body, when long in the ground it had lain,
And Time into clay had resolved it again,
A potter found out in its covert so snug,
And with part of fat Toby he form’d his brown jug,
Now, sacred to friendship, to mirth and mile ale,
So here to my lovely sweet Nan of the vale.

Ken – October 2, 2009
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Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Bobinwales » Sat Oct 03, 2009 6:08 pm

THIS seems to be the jug described, along with the others in the set.
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Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Oct 04, 2009 1:23 pm

.. I have several Royal Doulton toby jugs of various sizes depicting Merlin and another named Wizard ..

WoZ the collector
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by John Barton » Sun Oct 04, 2009 11:13 pm

Thanks, Ken, for once again giving a very full and interesting reply. I had no idea that Shelta (also known as Gammen, Sheldru, Pavee, Caintíotar or simply "The Cant") is still spoken by 86,000 people. The Wikipedia article on it is fascinating.
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Signature: John Barton, New Plymouth, New Zealand

Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Shelley » Tue Oct 13, 2009 9:13 pm

In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" there is a character named Sir Toby Belch. Toby Belch is a loud, coarse, funny, well-meaning but weak, drunken buffoon. Could Toby Belch have been an inspiration for Toby Filpot? Maybe there is something of the highwayman about Toby Belch, but I'd have to read the play again to find any reference to it. Is there a date to the "thieves' slang" definition in the OED, Ken? Although not a low-life in rank (he's "Sir" Toby, after all), Shakespeare was using an aptonym(?), as he was with Sir Aguecheek, Malvolio, etc.
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Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Oct 19, 2009 6:43 am

Shelley, The OED’s oldest English example of TOBY being used as thieves' slang to refer to highways and robbery was from the early 19th century – too late for William. And the bard, in playing the aptonym game in Twelfth Night, doesn’t seem to have attached any particular significance to the first name, at least in the case of Andrew Aguecheek (other than alliteration). It does seem like a pretty good guess, though, that the inspiration for the aptonyn Toby Filpot was Twelfth Night character Toby Belch.

Ken – October 18, 2009
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Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Genghiz » Fri Oct 11, 2013 1:26 pm

1) 'toby' - seems to have been fairly common slang for highway/road when Eric Blair (George Orwell) wrote about hop-pickers in 1931:

"It is no wonder that itinerant agricultural labourers, most of whom are in work ten months of the year, travel ‘on the toby’ and sleep in the casual ward between jobs." -- see ... p-picking/

This article has a footnote that -- ‘The toby’ was ‘the road’ (so ‘the high toby’ was ‘the highway’). Peter Davison and Ben Pimlott.

It seems to tie in nicely with the idea that the main water cutoff valve is located close to the road, sometimes on the berm.

2) The term 'water toby' is in common use in Scotland, see --

Aberdeen -

Scottish Water - ... 22013.pdf‎

West Lothian - ... urstPipes‎

I would guess that the term was imported into New Zealand by Scottish settlers.
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Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Oct 11, 2013 6:34 pm

Thanks for the additional research and your New Zealand perspective, Genghiz. We could certainly do with more of you here!
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Re: toby [toby tap / water toby; toby jug]

Post by Neil Shaddick » Sun Apr 27, 2014 1:03 pm

My neighbour used this expression last week when our property sprang a leak over Easter: 'have you turned off the toby?' I had never heard it before but I should have guessed that, if you google it, you come straight back to Wordwizard for the comprehensive explanation. It's not in the OED nor the NZOED, so high-five to the creators of this site.
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