“They live in a tony part of town.” “It’s quite a tony crowd.” “A rather tony little restaurant.” “One tony relative in every family.”
We know what tony means here, don’t we? It’s another way the bon ton would say smart – not as in intelligent but as in, you know, cultivated and sweating money. Liberal in spending, but more of a Tory set. What lower sorts might term swanky (but doesn’t that word have such vulgar overtones, dears). The word has been with us since the later 1800s.
But who is tony? Who is Tony? Why is tony tony? What is tony is often not tiny; it is noteworthy. The name seems somewhat equivocal: there are so many people named Tony, after all. There’s Tony Soprano. There’s Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino in Scarface). There an auto mechanic named Tony hidden in every Fiat logo: FIAT = Fix It Again, Tony. And a Fiat is not the toniest car you can get!
But there’s also the Tony Award, named after Antoinette Perry. There’s Tony Blair, formerly prime minister of England (not exactly a toff – a bit more blaring than all that – but he did move in some tony circles). There’s Tony Aspler, Canada’s top wine critic – who often drinks and eats at some pretty tony places, though he’s an entirely unpretentious fellow (disclosure: I edit his website).
But what’s tony is not named after a Tony. It’s just that adjectival –y tacked onto tone. There are, of course, several kinds of tone. There’s muscle tone, skin tone, your tone of voice or the tone of what you’re saying – if you strike the wrong tone, you may be detonated! – and any smooth and steady note. Or even a rising or falling – or falling and rising – tone, as you might hear in a language such as Mandarin Chinese.
What we have in mind in this case, of course, is high tone. As in a high-toned affair. Attended by the bon ton. Perhaps like the one in the video for La Roux’s “I’m Not Your Toy.” Loaded with the toys of the rich, but the people there are not ones to toy with. Tony could be a melting of no toy; ignore that at your peril. If you try to crash a tony reception and you are no one of note, your reception will be stony.
Thanks to a reader who signs as Snowbird of Paradise for suggesting tony.