The Grammarphobia Blog

High muckamucks

Q: I listen to you on XM Public Radio and you’ve reignited my passion for language. I wonder if you can tell me the origin of the term “mucky muck” in reference to a well-heeled, fancy person?

A: The expression, which has a long and interesting history, is usually seen as “high muckamuck,” “muckamuck,” or “muckety-muck” these days. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has entries for the first two while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) goes for the third. Both references say the expression refers to an important, often arrogant person.

The term “high muck-a-muck” began life as mid-19th century American slang for an important or self-important person, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. (Variations included “big muck-a-muck,” “muckety-muck,” “muckti-muck,” “muckty-muck,” “mucky-muck,” and “mucky-mucky.”)

The first citation for the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1856 article in the Democratic State Journal in Sacramento: “The professors – high ‘Muck-a-Mucks’ – tried fusion, and produced confusion.”

Why “muck”? Doing a little exploring, we find that the noun “muck” was first recorded in 1268, when it was a term for excrement, particularly farm manure. In the following century, it came to be used as a general term for dirt or filth.

But from the year 1325 until well into the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “muck” was also a word for “worldly wealth, money, especially regarded as sordid, corrupting, etc.” This sense of “muck” as filthy lucre is now obsolete.

The verb “muck,” not surprisingly, meant to hoard money or wealth back in the 1400s, another meaning that’s become obsolete. And in the 1500s, a “mucker” was a miser or a hoarder of wealth.

All this would seem to point to Middle English origins for the “muckamuck” who’s a VIP in American slang. But surprisingly, the expression apparently comes from a completely different direction – not English at all, but Native American languages of the Pacific Northwest.

As it turns out, according to the OED, “muckamuck” was originally a Chinook word for food, probably derived from a Nootka word meaning choice whalemeat.

In fact, European explorers, settlers, and so on once used “muckamuck” to refer to food or provisions (There was a verb, too: in the old Northwest, to “muckamuck” was to eat.)

It’s this use of “muckamuck” that led to the noun for a big shot. The word in this sense was originally part of the expression “high muck-a-muck,” which the OED says was apparently adapted from Chinook: hiu (“plenty”) plus muckamuck (“food”). In other words, someone with a lot of food was a big cheese.

The “muckamuck” that refers to an important person today is a shorter version of “high muckamuck.” And while we now interpret the beginning of the phrase as the English word “high,” its original meaning was plenty different.

And that’s enough mucking around for today!

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