6

In the George Orwell poem "A Dressed Man and a Naked Man", two men are haggling for the clothes of one of them (the other is naked). After a little research into the pounds/shillings/pence system for the terms I'd forgotten, I figured out the amounts they were proposing: "Ten bob" is 10 shillings, "One dollar" is 5 shillings, "Eight and a tanner" is 8.5 shillings, "Take seven" means 7 shillings, and "One tanner more" makes 7.5 shillings. The only thing left to understand is the verb "toby", which appears twice in the poem:

[‘]Turnips, apples, hops and peas,
And the spike when times are slack,
Fifty years I’ve tobied it
For these clothes upon my back.’

[...]

[‘]Now pull my shirt over my head,
I’m naked sole to crown,
And that’s the end of fifty years
Tobying up and down.’

What does the slang verb "toby" mean? Does it refer to some kind of low-paid work, perhaps? I tried searching online for this, but couldn't find any answer that fits.

5

User Gareth Rees appears to be right in his assertion that the word relates to being "on the road". A quick research suggests this is the only commonly-understood meaning of "toby" in slang.

Thanks to user Spagirl who found a possible derivation in the OED. It seems to be rooted in 'tober' which originated in the Irish Traveller cant known as 'Shelta'.

Tobur, toba (showmen, &c.), the ground or field at fairs, hired to put the waggons on for show or circuses, or other al fresco entertainments, which does not amount to much, so that a man or manager is considered very hard up if he has not enough to pay the tobur. Gypsy tober, the road, hence ground.

We can, however, confirm that this was Orwell's intended meaning because he used it elsewhere: in his Hop Picking Diary.

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.

And, later

We could never persuade him to wash more of himself than his nose and a small circle around it, and he mentioned quite casually that he had several different kinds of louse on him. He too was an orphan, and had been ‘on the toby’ almost from infancy.

And in the accompanying notes:

Toby, on the… on the tramp. (Also to toby, and a toby, meaning a tramp. Slang Dictionary gives toby as the highroad.)

Read in context, these paragraphs clearly refer to a life of vagrancy. So given that Orwell used it this way in his essay, it seems reasonable to assume he intended it in the same way in the poem, especially given the vagabond nature of its characters.

  • 1
    The OED has some relevant stuff on 'toby' as a noun, and also 'tober' which would seem to be its root and which has its origins in the Irish Traveller cant known as 'Shelta'. Tobur, toba (showmen, &c.), the ground or field at fairs, hired to put the waggons on for show or circuses, or other al fresco entertainments, which does not amount to much, so that a man or manager is considered very hard up if he has not enough to pay the tobur. Gypsy tober, the road, hence ground. Some of it would flesh out this answer. – Spagirl Jan 10 at 13:56
  • @Spagirl brilliant - thanks! Have edited. – Matt Thrower Jan 10 at 16:20
  • 2
    Orwell's essay "Hop-Picking" has some notes, one of which might be worth quoting. – Gareth Rees Jan 10 at 16:56
  • @GarethRees I am indebted to you also, thank you. – Matt Thrower Jan 10 at 17:24
-1

I looked up "toby" in A Dictionary Of Slang And Unconventional English by Eric Partridge (third edition, 1949), which provides several meanings:

toby. (...)

— 3. (Always the toby.) The highway: c. (—1811) (...) Also, fig., robbery on the highway: (...)

— 8. A tramp: c.: C. 20. George Orwell, Down and Out, 1933.

toby, v.t. To rob (a person) on the highway; hence, done for a toby, convicted for highway robbery: c. of 1810-50.

Even though Orwell uses a verb in his poem, I don't think he means "to rob", but instead "to live as a tramp" (see the last meaning of the noun). This fits the context of the poem much better.

  • I don't understand the reasoning behind a downvote on an answer that is backed up by a dictionary compiled during Owell's lifetime. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 13 at 17:13

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