January 2018
Southern Translation

Southern Translation

SENTENCE USAGE: “I know it ain’t right to talk about nobody but, bless her heart, that baby girl of the new preacher is just plug ugly!”

What is the difference in being plug ugly and just regular ugly?

Plug ugly means to be extremely ugly and usually refers to people.

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 50 in number, called the ‘Plug Uglies’ arrived here this morning from Baltimore for the purpose of defeating the Democratic ticket and keeping naturalized 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 semifictionalized. 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 United States. In other parts of the English-speaking world, you are just as likely to hear “pug ugly” with the same meaning.

Pugs 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) 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 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, the name for headgear stuffed with paper and pulled over the ears as protection.

That the gang wore spiked boots 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.

Despite 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 United States, 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.”