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The meaning and origin of the expression: Plug-ugly

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Plug-ugly

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Meaning

Extremely ugly, usually of people.

Origin

The Plug Uglies were a street gang operating out of Baltimore, Maryland in the 1850s. The notorious Know Nothing Riot, in which political and gang rivalries flared up into mob violence, took place in Baltimore in 1856. Gangs called the Rip Raps, the Know Nothings and the Plug Uglies fought pitched battles in the streets and these events were widely reported at the time. A contemporary newspaper report also puts the gang in Washington in the following year. The New York Daily Times, June 1857, printed a report from a correspondent in Washington:

A gang of organized desperate rowdies, some fifty in number, called the “Plug Uglies”, arrived here this morning from Baltimore, for the purpose of defeating the Democratic ticket and keeping naturalised citizens from the polls.

Later reports, notably Herbert Asbury's account Gangs of New York, 1927, placed the Plug Uglies in New York. This is now disputed and some historians regard Asbury's account as semi-fictionalised. Newspaper reports of New York City riots of 1857 only described the Plug Uglies as being rivals of the participants rather than being participants themselves. However, the appeal of the Plug Ugly name was too much for Martin Scorsese to resist when he made the film Gangs of New York in 2002, and he also located them in New York.

'Plug-ugly' is an expression mostly found in the USA. In other parts of the English-speaking world you are just as likely to hear 'pug-ugly', which has the same meaning.

Plug uglyPugs aren't the most attractive of animals and many might say that only their mother could love them. 'Pug-ugly' seems as intuitive a coining as 'crystal-clear' or 'bone-dry'. It seems reasonable to assume (and there's dangerous etymological talk) that one of these phrases derived from the other, either as a deliberate play on words or via a mishearing. Taking that assumption on, which came first, 'plug' or 'pug'?

It appears that 'plug-ugly' came in first, although 'pug-ugly' ran it a close second. Even in some early reports of the 'Plug-Uglies' in the Baltimore riots, the term 'pug-ugly' was included in the text. The Milwaukee Daily News, June 1857, described a 'pug-ugly' as a person with a brutish, swollen face that was the result of being 'plugged', that is 'punched', by a member of the Plug Ugly gang.

This leads us to look at the various explanations of how these expressions were derived. 'Pug-ugly' is straightforward. It isn't a reference to the breed of dog, ugly though they are, but to 'pug' as a shortened form of 'pugilist'. Boxers were often battered and disfigured. As to 'plug-ugly', frankly, no one knows. As is always the case when a verifiable derivation isn't known, people like to make up guesses. Here are a few theories; there are others:

- The 'plugging' = 'punching' derivation given in the 1857 newspaper.

- That the 'Plug-Ugly' gang wore 'Plug' hats, which were the name for headgear that was stuffed with paper and pulled over the ears as protection.

- That the gang wore spiked boots which they used to kick at victims, thereby 'plugging' them.

As is usually the case with derivations where, in truth, 'nobody knows', the list goes on.

Plug-uglyDespite not knowing where it came from, we do know what it means and the expression has been in figurative (that is, lowercase) usage since the 1920s. P G Wodehouse, possibly as a consequence of his frequent visits to the USA, used the phrase frequently, as here in Bill The Conqueror, 1924:

As plainly as if he carried a sign, this man wore the word "plug-ugly" written all over him.