As Britain heads toward a snap general election, there’s one question on the minds of voters: What on Earth is a “mugwump”?
The query was prompted Wednesday by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s use of the word as an apparent insult in a newspaper column. Writing in the right-wing Sun tabloid, he attacked opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, warning that the Labour candidate would not be able to stand up to threats such as “a revanchist Russia,” the “semi-deranged regime in North Korea,” and the Islamic State, which he referred to as “an evil Islamist death cult.”
Johnson argued that voters were underestimating the threat posed by Corbyn, an old-school leftist. “He may be a mutton-headed old mugwump, but he is probably harmless” is how the Conservative politician said concerns about Corbyn might be dismissed.
A mugwump? If you’re confused by that turn of phrase, you’re not alone. Although British political insults are often inventive – US President Donald Trump was once referred to as a “wazzock” in Parliament – “mugwump” may have been a bridge too far. The word quickly became a top search term in Britain, and there was widespread discussion of the word on social media.
But really, what is a mugwump? Even after consulting a dictionary, the answer isn’t completely clear.
The US Merriam-Webster dictionary offers two definitions: “A bolter from the Republican Party in 1884” or “a person who is independent (as in politics) or who remains undecided or neutral.”
He may be a mutton-headed old mugwump, but he is probably harmless
Boris Johnson, on Jeremy Corbyn
However, a further note explains that it is also “an Anglicised version of a word used by Massachusett Indians to mean ‘war leader’ ” and that “the word was sometimes jestingly applied in early America to someone who was the ‘head guy.’ ”
Meanwhile, the UK Oxford dictionary said the word referred to “a person who remains aloof or independent, especially from party politics,” noting that it came from the Algonquin word mugquomp, which meant “great chief.”
Confusing matters further, “mugwump” is used in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world to describe senior members of the “International Confederation of Wizards.” The word and others close to it also are used in books by Roald Dahl, making a notable appearance in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator as Willy Wonka refers to another character as “my dear old muddleheaded mugwump.” Another literary reference, albeit directed at a more adult audience, could be found in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: In the famously abstract and sometimes obscene novel, the mugwumps are an alien-like species that resemble reptiles and secrete an addictive substance from their sexual organs.
Johnson elaborated little on his choice of words in interviews on Thursday morning. Appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, he initially sidestepped a question about “mugwump” and told the hosts that the risk was that voters viewed Corbyn as an “effectively benign harmless person,” even though his leadership would pose a risk to Britain.
Johnson said that he had not been making a reference to Harry Potter and that a mugwump was a “political put-down” that he may have first read in a Dahl book. In an interview with London’s LBC radio, Johnson also said he wanted to apologise to “mugwumps everywhere” for using the word to describe Corbyn.
Critics suggested that Johnson’s use of an obscure word showed not only that the upper-class foreign secretary was out of touch, but that he used insults and wordplay as distractions. Labour representatives dismissed his use of “mugwump.”
“It’s the sort of look-at-me name-calling that you would expect in an Eton playground,” shadow cabinet minister John Healey told BBC’s Radio 4.
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