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The linguistic legacy of the Master of Suspense

The linguistic legacy of the Master of Suspense

Sir Alfred Hitchcock was born on August 13 in 1899. His contribution to cinema is without question. You don’t have terms like Master of Suspense bandied around about you if you weren’t rather handy in the director’s chair.  His films have thrilled audiences for decades – we’ve marvelled at his icy blondes, cheered on his dapper heroes, and sympathised with those who found themselves slap bang in the middle of a case of mistaken identity.

Where’s Alfred?

But what of his contribution to the English Language? Hitchcockian and Hitchcockesque are certainly terms which one hears and reads, in reference to other directors (homage or aping? You decide). While the word cameo wasn’t coined with Hitch in mind, he is arguably the person that springs to mind when thinking about the concept. After all, how many people watch his films, intent on spotting his fleeting appearance, whether it be his missing a bus or struggling to board a train carrying a cello?

Thanks for nothing

Yet perhaps his most important linguistic legacy is neither of these and deals with nothing at all. A great big, fat nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the McGuffin (or MacGuffin, if you prefer). Defined as ‘an object or device in a film or a book which serves merely as a trigger for the plot’, the term was first used way back in 1939, in a lecture Hitchcock gave at Columbia University.  Probably originating from the surname McGuffin, the term was allegedly borrowed by Hitchcock from a humorous story involving a diversion of this kind. One of the illustrative quotations used in the OED entry explains this:

1967   A. Hitchcock in F. Truffaut Hitchcock vi. 98   The theft of secret documents [in Kipling’s stories] was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is… You may be wondering where the term originated. It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.

Here be a tiny spoiler

The very point about the McGuffin is that it essentially doesn’t make a real difference to the outcome of the tale, other than to drive the action, create suspense, and give a reason for the hero or heroine to find themselves in their particular predicament. Do we ever discover the true nature of the secrets that have Roger Thornhill zigzagging across isolated countryside trying to avoid a menacing biplane or hanging on for dear life on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest? No, we don’t, but once we are drawn into the action, they have played their part and we needn’t know any more about them.

Thanks, indeed, for nothing.

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