What exactly is a “mutton headed old mugwump”? That’s the question we’ve been asking ever since Boris Johnson used the phrase to refer to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the run up to the General Election.
“Mugwump” is a term we’ve heard used in novels by William S Burroughs, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling, but where exactly does it come from? And is it necessarily a bad thing? Even the presenters of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme are baffled.
Allow us to shed some light on the matter.
Mugwump was first used in politics in the 1884 US election. It was the collective term used to describe Republican political activists who abandoned the party and its candidate, the allegedly financially corrupt James G Blaine, throwing their support behind Democrat Grover Cleveland instead.
It comes from the Algonquin Native American word mugquomp, which was recorded as early as 1832, and means an important person or war leader. So the political Mugwumps of 1884 were criticised for being too self-important to get involved in party politics.
That’s close to the current dictionary definition of mugwump, “a person who remains aloof or independent, especially from party politics”, and was probably the sense in which Boris Johnson was using it. But the word has a long history, and some very different connotations.
In William Burroughs’s 1959 novel Naked Lunch, Mugwumps were beaked creatures with no livers who fed on sweets and secreted odd liquid from a curiously shaped body part.
Now there’s a mental image for you.
Or perhaps Johnson had Roald Dahl’s definition of a Mugwump in mind. That was the term Willy Wonka used when chatting with Mrs Bucket.
Then again, Johnson may have been trying to pay tribute to the Labour leader.
JK Rowling’s definition of a Mugwump is an all together more flattering one: The Supreme Mugwump is Rowling’s title for the head of the International Confederation of Wizards in the Harry Potter series, which sounds a lot closer to the original Native American meaning of an important person.
Which only leaves the question, can “mutton-headed” ever be a compliment? We’ll leave that one for another time…