What on earth is a mugwump?
It’s the political insult that has sent everyone scuttling off to their dictionaries. But what exactly did Boris Johnson mean when he referred to the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as ‘a mutton-headed old mugwump’?
Though it has a whiff of both J K Rowling and Roald Dahl about it (with good reason, as we will see below) mugwump is actually American in origin. It comes from Massachusett, an Algonquian language spoken by the Massachusett people, from whom the US state takes its name. The word mugquomp, meaning ‘war leader’ or ‘great chief’, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for ‘officer’, ‘captain’, and ‘duke’. By the early 1800s the form ‘mugwump’ had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss. J K Rowling may have been thinking of this early sense when she used the word for the head of the International Confederation of Wizards in Harry Potter, the Supreme Mugwump.
So was the Foreign Secretary referring to Corbyn’s importance as Labour leader? It seems unlikely. To get to the bottom of the insult we need to follow mugwump’s story a little further.
In 1884 a group of Republican political activists refused to support the Republican candidate James G Blaine, because of his reputation for scandal and corruption. They turned their support instead to the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland, swinging the close election in his favour. The editor of the New York Sun, Charles Anderson Dana, labelled these political bolters ‘Mugwumps’, intending to mock them for their self-importance and holier-than-thou sanctimony. The term caught on, leading to the Mugwumps being portrayed as ‘fence-sitters’, with their ‘mugs’, or faces, on one side, and their ‘wumps’ (a play on ‘rumps’) on the other.
Political commentators were so taken with the word that it survived the election, and outlived the original Mugwumps, coming to refer to someone who remains aloof from party politics, expressing political disinterest. The derogatory tone and implication of self-righteous moral superiority remained, which likely informed Johnson’s choice of this particular epithet.
But Johnson didn’t just call Corbyn a mugwump – no, he was ‘a mutton-headed mugwump’. Mutton-headed is again originally US in origin (unsurprising, perhaps, when we remember that Boris was born in New York), and means ‘dull, stupid, and slow-witted’, dating from 1768. If you are mutton-headed, you are sheep-like, content to simply follow the herd, rather than think for yourself. An odd bedfellow for the independent and superior mugwump, perhaps, but perhaps the alliteration was part of the appeal.
And what of Roald Dahl? Dahl certainly invented a similar sounding word as a name for one of his characters. In The Enormous Crocodile (first published in 1978) we meet a monkey named ‘Muggle-Wump’, who generously offers the crocodile some of his nuts. Muggle-Wump also appears in The Twits (1980), where he and his family have been captured by Mr Twit and forced to stand on their heads all day. Years before this, in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972), Dahl has Willy Wonka refer to Mrs Bucket as ‘my dear old muddleheaded mugwump’ – an insult that, though rather more affectionate, is strikingly reminiscent of Johnson’s ‘mutton-headed mugwump’. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary was simply recalling his boyhood reading?