The Grammarphobia Blog

Did muckrakers once rake muck?

Q: I was wondering if the word “muckraker” originated as a literal term for someone whose duty it was to clean stables, latrines, etc.?

A: The word “muckraker” was used figuratively when it showed up in the early 1600s—as a derogatory term for a miser. However, it’s ultimately derived from “muckrake,” literally a tool for raking muck.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “muckrake” as a “rake for collecting muck; spec. a dungfork; (also) a rake for clearing debris from ponds, etc.” The OED’s earliest example is from a 1366 entry in the accounts of Brandon, a manor in Suffolk, England:

“Vno muckrake cum ij Tyndes ferre” (“One muckrake with two iron tines”). From “English in Manorial Documents of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,” an article in the August 1936 issue of Modern Philology.

At the time that manorial document was written, “muck” usually referred to “the dung of farm animals used for manure,” the OED says, but by the 15th and 16th centuries it was also being used to mean “mud, dirt, filth; rubbish, refuse,” both literally and figuratively.

In the 17th century, John Bunyan used a “muckrake” as a symbol of man’s preoccupation with earthly things. He describes “a man that could look no way but downwards, with a Muck-rake in his hand” (The Pilgrim’s Progress, Second Part, 1684). Bunyan’s comment inspired some later writers to use “muckrake,” “muckraking,” and “muckraker” in various figurative senses.

In the 19th century, the noun “muckrake” was used figuratively to mean a “ready or indiscriminate means for gathering in wealth, information, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first figurative citation uses the term in its wealth sense: “Mammon may not lift his eyes from his ‘muckrake’ long enough to see all this” (from Home Evangelization, 1850, published by the American Tract Society).

In the next citation, a “muckrake” is a means for gathering critical information—in this case about the wives of famous men: “Let us rather, with muck-rake and drag-net, make prize of more modern material, which may be found lying loose around and within comparatively easy reach” (from “Some Celebrated Shrews,” by Frank W. Ballard, Galaxy magazine, March 1868).

A decade later, “muckrake” appeared as a figurative verb meaning to be concerned with mundane matters. Here is the OED’s first example: “Men, forgetful of the perennial poetry of the world, muck-raking in a litter of fugitive refuse.” (From the Fortnightly Review, April 1879. Anthony Trollope was a founder of the review, and George Henry Lewes, George Eliot’s companion, was its first editor.)

When the noun “muckraking” showed up at the end of the 19th century, it meant the “practice of uncovering and publicizing evidence of corruption and scandal, esp. among powerful or well-known people or institutions.” The first Oxford citation is from the Fresno (Calif.) Republican Weekly, May 22, 1895: “They would not have been able to learn much in one evening’s muck-raking of such a cesspool of presumed corruption.”

As we’ve said, the noun “muckraker” referred to a miser when it showed up at the beginning of the 17th century. The earliest OED citation is from The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heauen (1601), by the Puritan cleric Arthur Dent:

“We see the world is full of such pinch-pennies, that wil let nothing goe, except it bee wrung from them perforce, as a key out of Hercules hande. These gripple [grasping] muck-rakers, had as leeue part with their bloud, as their goods.”

The only literal uses of “muckraker” we’ve seen are in reference to the downward-looking allegorical character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. For example, Thomas Heptinstall, editor of a 1796 edition of Bunyan’s book, includes a “Key to the Allegory” that refers to him as “the Muck-Raker.”

And a satirical poem in the Sept. 3, 1884, issue of Punch uses the term for an aristocrat waiting for someone to take his bet at a horse race: “And old Lord Snaffle, ‘waiting for a taker,’ / Might sit for Bunyan’s grovelling Muck-raker.”

In the early 20th century, “muckraker” was used figuratively to describe the questionable practices of a newspaper that printed sensationalized stories. We found this example in an Indiana paper, challenging a report that newspapers needed to be swept of sensationalism:

“A large majority of the daily newspapers stand in no need of such regeneration, and the small and dwindling minority which practices the arts of the muck raker and the sideshow ‘barker’ will shortly be out of business” (from the Feb. 28, 1903, issue of the Daily Tribune in Terre Haute).

A few years later, “muckraker” took on its modern metaphorical sense of an author or journalist who investigates and exposes misconduct in government or business. An April 14, 1906, speech in Washington by President Theodore Roosevelt helped popularize the new usage.

Roosevelt used Bunyan’s symbolism in urging reporters and writers to focus on worthy accomplishments as well as corruption: “The men with the muckrakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor.”

Although the President’s speech didn’t include the word “muckraker,” it began appearing later in the year as a derogatory term for an investigative reporter. The Insurance Age, a monthly trade journal, used it that way to headline a column in November 1906: “Burton J. Hendricks, Reportorial Cub and Muckraker—The End of His Screeds the Best Thing About Them.”

In online standard dictionaries, the noun “muckraker,” verb “muckrake,” and noun “muckraking” have lost much of that negative sense, though not quite all. Cambridge, for example, defines “muckraker” as “a person, especially one in a news organization, who tries to find out unpleasant information about people or organizations in order to make it public.”

Merriam-Webster defines “muckrake” as “to search out and publicly expose real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business.” And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines “muckraking” as the “action of searching out and publicizing scandal about famous people.”

Finally, a “muckrake” on a farm, according to Collins, is still “an agricultural rake for spreading manure.”

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