‘not to be able to [verb] for toffee’: meaning and origin

Of British-English origin, the phrase not to be able to [verb] for toffee means to be incompetent at performing the action denoted by the verb.

The underlying notion is presumably of failing to win even the smallest prize. This seems to be supported by the extended form of the phrase “could not shoot for toffee, cigars, cocoa-nuts, or anything else” in quotation 13.

The phrase not to be able to [verb] for toffee occurs, for example, in the following passage from The Thorn Birds (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977), by the Australian novelist Colleen McCullough (1937-2015):

As she picked up her handbag and the little case by the door she turned back, her hand on the knob. “Let me give you a little word of advice, Luke. In case you ever get yourself another woman, when you’re too old and too tired to give yourself to the cane any more. You can’t kiss for toffee. You open your mouth too wide, you swallow a woman whole like a python. Saliva’s fine, but not a deluge of it.”

The earliest occurrences that I have found are as follows, in chronological order—the phrase originally occurred in sporting contexts as not to be able to play, or shoot, for toffee:

1-: From Athletic Notes, by ‘Referee’, published in the Mexborough and Swinton Times (Mexborough, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 19th November 1886:

Concurrent with the first eleven’s victory, the second eleven were administering a severe drubbing to Kilnhurst Church, and this success should impart courage into the ranks, and tend to the reputation of the allegation that the “youngsters can’t play for toffee.”

2-: From the account of a football match between Darwen and the Notts Rangers, by ‘the Free Critic’, published in The Athletic News and Cyclists’ Journal (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 20th December 1887:

The spectators had not got a cheer left, and said their men could not play for toffee.

3-: From The Cricket and Football Field (Bolton, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 3rd March 1888:

Nuggets.

Robb is not a Cobbold.
Oh, what a soft ’un, Fergie!
Turton can do it, if they will.
Exit Thomasson—enter Harwood.
Wonder if Siddeley’s ear is better?
What was up with Suter in Ireland?
Still, she lingers. So do the mashers.
The Newton Heath semi realised £155.
L.b.w. will soon be a burning question.
How did the potato pie suit, “Robin?”
Well done, “Mem,” you are improving.
That Infirmary dog story is good if true.
Who’ll win Mr. Frank Hardcastle’s Cup?
Eccles, of the Old Wanderers, is no cake.
Ellison would like to be amongst it again.
Wreck of the Wanderers at Barley Bank.
Have Rossendale won on the Alps to-day.
Who says Fred H—— can’t play for toffee?

4-: From Gossip from the Broadacres, by ‘Old Ebor’, published in The Athletic News and Cyclists’ Journal (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 7th October 1889:

“THE MOST UNKINDEST CUT OF ALL”
—in the tantological [sic] diction of Bill Shakespeare—has been put on redord [sic] by Louis Hall, and it is too good to be allowed to pass by without giving it more than local prominence. The “Block-signaller” replied to the toast of “The County Team” at the recent dinner of the Heavy Woollen District Cup, and extemporised thusly:—“All counties had their bad seasons. Yorkshire had theirs last year, but no doubt they would soon regain their former position. He thought, however, that the Sheffield authorities were quite willing to give any likely cricketer a chance, whatever part of the county he came from—at least that was his experience. The ill-success of the Yorkshire team had caused no little abuse to be raised against the members of the eleven, but the unkindest cut of all was when a letter was received from the members of a junior club in Hull, asking when the county had a vacant date, as they were wishful to play them. They would guarantee, they said, not to let any of the first eleven play with the team pitted against the county, and would undertake to provide them with coffee and buns after the match.” Need I say that this plaintive oratory was greeted with “loud cheers and laughter?” By the way, should not the last sentence of the speech read “toffee” and buns. It has been a common saying during the last cricket season that Yorkshire “could not play for toffee.”

5-: From Odds and Ends, published in the Blackpool Herald (Blackpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 15th November 1889:

Vive la Bickerstaffe!
Chapman is a demon goaler.
Blackpool couldn’t shoot for “toffee.”
Who shot at goal and hit the corner flag, Clem?
Mackereth can learn the Blackpool forwards something in the shooting line.
[&c.]

6-: From Football Notes, by ‘Forward’, published in The Leicester Daily Mercury (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Saturday 30th November 1889:

Does everybody know that Swinton is as nearly as possible, if not quite, the champion Rugby football club of England? If they do, they may be able to form some conception of the impertinence of Leicester in taking down a team who “can’t play for toffee!” This is an expression bestowed on Leicester at Oldham, and it looks like sticking to ’em until the club can put dependence on a regular fifteen.

7-: From Notes, published in The Cannock Chase Courier (Cannock, Staffordshire, England) of Saturday 4th January 1890:

Hednesford had a good chance of winning their League match on Saturday, as the Unity had not their strongest team, but the colliery lads had evidently been having a good time of it this Christmas, and could not play for “toffee.”

8-: From Sports and Pastimes, by ‘Observer’, published in the Leicester Daily Post (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Monday 20th January 1890:

The liens [sic] of the Leicester Football Club are not cast in pleasant places this season. Readers must be already cognisant of regrettable incidents which have cropped up to mar the club’s progress towards the goal of success, and now there is another to relate. Saturday last was a fine day for football, consequently there was a good “gate” at Belgrave-road, and although the home team was not quite so strong as might have been desired, it was nevertheless hoped by the executive that the public would be given a good show for their money. As ill-luck would have it, however, nearly every man-jack of the side was “dead off colour.” They couldn’t play for toffee, as the saying now goes, and a more disappointing exposition of Rugby football, coming from the source it did, could scarcely be conceived.

9-: From Liverpool and District Notes, by ‘The Loiterer’, published in The Athletic News and Cyclists’ Journal (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 12th January 1891:

The Bootle team watched the match at Everton. Were they pleased with the result? […] The general verdict was that the Everton forwards could not play for toffee against North End.

10-: From Our Billiard Handicap, by ‘G. G.’, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Saturday 9th January 1892:

There is old Squire Tupton who has been playing billiards (and other games) all his life, and has consistently declined to do anything else. Despite the devotion of a life, Tupton can’t play for toffee, and his chief characteristic is that when he has fluked—most clearly and palpably fluked—he will assure you with all sincerity that “he played for it.” Of course nobody believes the statement—except Tupton.

11-: From Football and other Notes, published in The Howdenshire Gazette (Howden, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 1st April 1892:

The belief which is often expressed that Hull cannot play for toffee away from home received ample illustration at Buttershaw, where the homesters obtained three tries whilst Hull were unable to score a point.

12-: From Kicker’s Notes on Football, published in Halifax Local Opinion (Halifax, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 6th December 1892:

Dewsbury, 2 goals, Halifax, nil. Well, this takes the bakery. “Who’s won?” asked an enthusiastic Halifaxite on Saturday evening. When I told him the result I thought it had killed him. He literally gasped, “Well I’ll be (I didn’t hear this);” he said “they ought to be boiled.”
After the toasting they got last week this would be a change certainly. I never heard so much embroidered Yorkshire in all my experience of football as I have heard since this unfortunate match. No one is so inconsistent as your red-hot football follower. If his team wins they are heroes at once, but if they lose, especially if he thinks they ought to win easily, he is disgusted with them; “they can’t play for toffee” is about the mildest thing he says.

13-: From Football Notes, by ‘Off-Side’, published in The Workington Star and Harrington Guardian (Workington, Cumberland, England) of Friday 30th December 1892:

The Workington front rank worked well, but failed to take several chances in front of goal. In the latter respect they were, however, far superior to the Diamonds, ‘who could not shoot for toffee, cigars, cocoa-nuts, or anything else.’

14-: From Well Played, Burnley!, by ‘Pelican’, published in The Cricket and Football Field (Bolton, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 21st January 1893—Burnley had defeated Accrington by four goals to none:

It was bitter and gall to Accrington; joy, satisfaction, and pleasure to Burnley. When I got home—no rest for me. The Mrs. commenced a fearful fusilade [sic] on that Accrington team, and said they couldn’t play for toffee.

15-: From Football Notes, published in The Brecon County Times (Brecon, Brecknockshire, Wales) of Friday 3rd February 1893:

Overheard in Bailey Park, Abergavenny, on the occasion of the “Press” v. Dowlais match. First Bystander: “What do you think of the Mabons?”—His Friend: “They can’t play for toffee.”

16-: From the account of a football match between Abingdon and the 1st Grenadier Guards, published in The Reading Standard (Reading, Berkshire, England) of Friday 24th March 1893:

Abingdon looked dangerous, but it early became evident that they could not shoot for toffee, most of their shots being very badly directed.

17-: From the account of a football match between Burnley and the Rovers, published in the Burnley Express (Burnley, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 22nd April 1893:

The crowd were clearly disappointed. At first they called upon the Rovers to “Play up,” and “Jump on the ——,” and then becoming disgusted they told them they “could not play for toffee,” and shouted to two or three by name “Pack up yo’re traps and gooa whooam!”

18-: From Gossiping Pars from Darwen, by ‘Unique’, published in The Cricket and Football Field (Bolton, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 9th September 1893:

For half an hour at Burnley the team played a splendid game, but what’s the use of it? There isn’t a man in the front rank who can shoot for toffee.

19-: From Football Farrago, by ‘Grasshopper’, published in The Isle of Man Times (Douglas, Isle of Man) of Tuesday 30th January 1894:

Stoke had the Liverpool swells—Everton—to look after, and well they did it. With the advantage of the same old wind in the first half, “the Potters” couldn’t pot worth a cent., and, crossing over with no score, it seemed any odds on the visitors. But here again the Everton forwards could not “shoot for toffee”—as the slang phrase aptly puts it—and the irrepressible Schofield put them out of their misery just three minutes from time.

20-: From Football. Lyrics of the “Times.” No. 52.—A very different tune!!!, by G. R. Tennyson-Sims, published in the Mexborough and Swinton Times (Mexborough, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 12th October 1894:

I saw a Wath committee-man, despondent he and sad,
And his manly noble forehead in a thundercloud was clad.
He also wore a chopper, and he murmured unto me,
“These chaps are going to lick us lad, as easy as can be;
For our team can’t play for toffee, they ain’t won a match as yet
In this here competition, and they won’t to-day, you bet.”

21-: From the account of a football match between Small Heath and Everton, published in The Football News (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England) of Saturday 10th November 1894:

This praise of the [Everton] forwards, who as a quintette were streets in front of Small Heath’s lot, must be taken as tempered by the statement that they couldn’t shoot for “toffee.”

22-: From Athletic Notes, by ‘Referee’, published in the Mexborough and Swinton Times (Mexborough, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 7th December 1894:

Mexborough football this week leaves no room for self-congratulation. First of all, the first team was beaten at Sheepbridge, and in the second place the second team went down to Wombwell Town on Monday. […]
[…]
I was sadly disappointed with the display of the second team on Monday, the more particularly because the result of the match has practically put them out of the Minor Cup competition proper. As the game itself went there was nothing smart about it. It was little better than a scramble all through, and with the Mexborough defence playing very poorly in the second half Wombwell just got home, though had “Shiner” Rodwell been able to shoot for toffee, Mexborough would have been beaten by a much larger majority than that of three goals to two.

23-: From Football Notes, published in The Halifax Comet (Halifax, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 8th December 1894:

“Halifax can’t play for toffee,” “They’re not worth watching”; such are the up-to-date comments of the youngsters of the town, and they tersely enough express the prevailing feeling of disgust amongst the Cupholders’ supporters.

24-: From Bournemouth Sports Notes, by ‘Umpire’, published in The Southern Echo and Bournemouth Telegraph (Southampton, Hampshire, England) of Thursday 28th February 1895:

As I remarked in my notes of Monday, the Wonders deserved the draw on Saturday, and Bournemouth didn’t. I hardly remember seeing more wretched shooting than was indulged in by several of the Greenshirts during the second half, and they have only themselves to blame for not registering as decisive a win as on the 1st of December, when the difference was 6—2. Perhaps it was the outcome of a month’s enforced idleness, but with about one exception none of the home forwards appeared able to play for toffee!

25-: From Sports & Pastimes. Football, published in the Smethwick Telephone (Smethwick, Staffordshire, England) of Saturday 30th March 1895:

Somebody was informing us the other day that Smethwick could not play for “toffee,” but after Saturday’s achievement of the Smethwick club, that gentleman will have to take a back seat. Their victory over Halesowen—who are a team not to be despised at any time—comes at a time when it is badly wanted.

26-: From the Mexborough and Swinton Times (Mexborough, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 16th August 1895:

Songs of the Bat and Ball.
No. 14.—THEY COULDN’T PLAY FOR TOFFEE IF THEY TRIED!

I saw a team from Doncaster, the borough famed for spice,
Where butterscotch is made, you know, and other things as nice,
But that cricket team, you found if you observed them more than twice!
They couldn’t play for toffee if they tried!

Their bowling was the weakest I have seen for many a while,
Their batting it was chronic in its amateurish style,
They framed in such a fashion that it forced a chap to smile—
They couldn’t play for toffee if they tried!

The fellows of the home team scored as freely as they chose,
They could score off every ball of such poor trundlers as were those,
What makes them play at cricket surely only heaven knows,
For they couldn’t play for toffee if they tried!

Their fielding was a sample of how not to do the trick,
They couldn’t stop the ball when it wasn’t going quick,
I’d like to bet that some of them could hardly stop a brick—
They couldn’t play for toffee if they tried!

The home team ran the total to a hundred runs and three,
Then the captain closed his innings, and he murmured “Now, we’ll see,
“If the visitors are batsmen,” but good heaven what a spree!
They couldn’t play for toffee if they tried!

When they faced some decent bowling it was fun to see ’em try—
Their efforts so ridiculous made several people cry—
And they summed up their performance by the utterance: “Oh, my,”
They couldn’t play for toffee if they tried!

I’d advise that team from Doncaster to go sell their things,
And then invest the proceeds in some marbles and some rings,
For their present show discredit on the pastime only brings,—
They couldn’t play for toffee if they tried!

G. R. Tennyson-Sims.

27-: From Football and Athletic Notes, by ‘Centre Forward’, published in The Newark Advertiser (Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, England) of Wednesday 2nd October 1895—Newark had been defeated by Mansfield:

The comments of the crowd are always entertaining and often instructive. These were not at all complimentary: “They cannot play for toffee!” “They are no better than last year’s team!” and the like, with caustic criticisms of individual players.

28-: From the account of a football match, published in The Referee (London, England) of Sunday 27th October 1895:

Corinthians drew with Middlesborough.—Some 2,000 spectators witnessed a poor match at the Queen’s Club enclosure, West Kensington, this (Saturday) afternoon, when the elevens of the above clubs met in friendly rivalry. […] At the onset the game was of the poorest, and certainly the remark from one of the spectators, that “Neither could play for toffee,” was correct, if somewhat vulgar.

29-: From Capturing the Cup, by ‘G. G.’, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Saturday 30th November 1895:

There were eight or nine runners for the cup, but I feared nothing seriously except two thoroughbred horses which had been duly qualified. These, I thought, would beat me for speed. One of them was favourite—a big bay horse called Old Bones belonging to Charlie Migson, who rode him, and who informed me, in the paddock, that he could fall down twice and win it. Not to be outdone in chivalry, I replied that he would probably fall down, but would certainly not win it, and as Charlie cannot ride for toffee the shaft went home. He once rode in a race of this kind, chiefly on the horse’s ears, after the first jump had been consummated in twice. Hence my genial sarcasm was much appreciated by the crowd.

30-: From the account of a football match between Hoyland Silkstone and Conisborough, published in the Mexborough and Swinton Times (Mexborough, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 20th March 1896:

Without doubt, it was the poorest game seen in Hoyland this season, and I earnestly hope that I shall never have to criticise such another exhibition. The display of the home front rank too was very unsatisfactory, with the opportunities they had, they ought to have put on at least a dozen goals, but the whole five couldn’t shoot for toffee.

31-: From Reading and District Notes, by ‘Old Sport’, published in The Newbury Weekly News (Newbury, Berkshire, England) of Thursday 2nd April 1896:

The Reading Reserves had an “off” day on Saturday, inasmuch that they could not play for toffee. They were opposed to the Old Kendricks (Reading), and the Old ’Uns surprised themselves and everybody else by playing the Reading second string to a draw, neither side scoring.

32-: From Mummers’ Island, by L. E. B. Stephens, published in The Era (London, England) of Saturday 11th April 1896:

By this time we had reached the door of St. Paul’s house. We all three went in, and I was introduced to Mrs St. Paul.
“You must be careful going upstairs,” she explained. “It is a trick staircase, like that used by poor Fred Leslie in Cinder-Ellen. Mr Sirrah had a large plant of stuff of every kind, and we have all had something. You wouldn’t be any better off next door. They have a trick staircase there, too; it was used in Humanity.”
This was interesting information. I next ventured to ask if any kind of food could be procured.
“Oh, yes; there’s Mr Aubrey up the street. He provides opossums. I can make lovely opossum-pie.”
“Aubrey!” St. Paul sniffed contemptuously, “used to call himsely [sic] a leading man. Never could act for toffee!”