Mugging Up

For quite a while now, probably at least since the start of this summer if not before, I’ve been wondering about the origin of the English word muggy, used to describe unpleasantly hot and humid weather. I’ve finally got round to looking it up…

According to the OED (or at least the Oxford Dictionaries website) it dates back to the mid 18th century and comes from mug, a dialect word (it doesn’t say what dialect) meaning “mist” or “drizzle”, which itself derives from an Old Norse word, mugga (evidently with the same meaning).

Wiktionary says more or less the same thing (minus the bit about coming via an English dialect). It also gives several synonyms – close, oppressive and sultry.

The latter is particularly interesting as, in addition to having a non-meteorological meaning of “sexually enthralling”, can (according to Wiktionary, at least) mean either “hot and humid” (i.e. muggy) or “very hot and dry”. The probable etymology is from the verb to swelter (itself coming from an Old English verb sweltan, meaning “to die”), which is used of suffering terribly, or perspiring, from great heat (with no reference to whether the heat is wet or dry).

Incidentally, today is St Swithun’s Day which, as I remember from a junior school assembly roughly 30 years ago, is traditionally supposed to determine the weather for the next 40 days (as in, if it rains today it will go on raining and if it doesn’t it will stay dry). Today has been, at least in my corner of North Wales, a lovely sunny day. Sadly, however, empirical evidence over the last several years suggests that this rule of thumb is not entirely reliable in these parts.

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