In book 1, chapter 2 of Little Dorrit (1857), Charles Dickens describes a party of travellers in Marseilles:

The rest of the party were of the usual materials: travellers on business, and travellers for pleasure; officers from India on leave; merchants in the Greek and Turkey trades; a clerical English husband in a meek strait-waistcoat, on a wedding trip with his young wife; a majestic English mama and papa, of the patrician order, with a family of three growing-up daughters, who were keeping a journal for the confusion of their fellow-creatures; and a deaf old English mother, tough in travel, with a very decidedly grown-up daughter indeed, which daughter went sketching about the universe in the expectation of ultimately toning herself off into the married state.

What is the meaning of the phrase in bold? None of the senses of “tone” in the OED seem to be quite right here.

1 Answer 1


When applied to colours, or to light and shade, “tone off” means “fade, blend, gradate”:

It is a most wonderful fact, and far beyond my philosophy, that instead of losing her roses in London, as a country girl ought to have done. Amy bloomed with more Jacqueminot† upon very bright occasions—more Louise Odier constantly, with Goubalt in the dimples, then toning off at any new fright to Malmaison, or Devoniensis—more of these roses now carmined or mantled in the delicate turn of her cheeks than ever had nestled and played there in the free air of the Forest.

R. D. Blackmore (1866). Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest, p. 22. London: Chapman and Hall.

† These are all rose cultivars: ‘Jacqueminot’ and ‘Louise Odier’ are deep reddish- and purplish-pink respectively, while ‘Malmaison’ and ‘Devoniensis’ are pale pinkish- and yellowish-white respectively.

The clear translucent glass of the dome ensures, however, a stream of light from above, and so the due proportion and distribution of light and shade is on the whole preserved, the maximum of light being at the centre, with all the diverging vistas toning off into twilight as they recede from the gaze of the spectator.

Edwin de Lisle (1913). ‘The Lighting of Churches’. In The Dublin Review, July & October 1913, p. 246.

And figuratively, to pass by imperceptible steps from one state to another:

Ida was one of those calm, quiet, essentially self-poised women, with whom, it would be quite possible for a man to have a very intimate friendship, without its toning off into anything warm, either on her part or on his. Everything with her was so positive and definite, that there was no possibility of going over the limits.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1861). My Wife and I; or, Harry Henderson’s History, p. 232. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

So I think the idea in Dickens is that the daughter expects to pass by imperceptible steps from spinster to wife in the same way that she can arrange for one colour to fade gradually into another in her sketches.

(This phrasal verb “tone off” is missing from the OED, so I submitted it.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.