Word Improvisation

The quadrennial national political season officially gets under way with the New Hampshire primary this month, and it will surely bring reminders of how quickly and easily derisive terms for the politically powerful and self-important tend to arise. The front-runners out of New Hampshire will be seeking contributions from fat cats (a political term going back to the 1920s, and a pre-Swing Era example of cat meaning "person") and endorsements from political bigwigs. began in metonymy (the use of a word as a name for something else, with which it is associated), doubtless prompted by the fashionable oversized perukes sported by British aristocrats in the seventeenth century and later. (Big wigs--some might call them rugs today--became traditional on the heads of English jurists before 1700, and they are still going strong.)

In politics or out, no bigwig wants to be referred to as a high (or big) muckamuck (or muckymuck or mucketymuck.) Nobody likes muck, but there is none in muckamuck 's origin: among the Nootka of Vancouver Island mak(a)mak means "food," and in the Chinook jargon of traders in the Northwest hayo makamak meant "lots to eat." Consider the superficial resemblance of hayo to "high." Chinook-speakers offering guests a lavish meal on windy frontier coasts might be thought of as the bigwigs of local society. In surfer idiom a synonymous term would be big kahunas, from the native Hawaiian word for an island priest, sorcerer, or healer.

explanation The remarkable mugwump, which attained a high profile in the Cleveland-Blaine presidential race of 1884, isn't usually associated with the meaning "political grandee," but in fact that's how it started out. The New York Sun had ridiculed some prominent Republicans for bolting the party to support Grover Cleveland: the phrase used was "the Little Mugwumps;" a month later Thomas Nast drew a mugwump cartoon for Harper's Weekly. thus became a term for a political turncoat. Originally, though, mugwump was a word roughly equivalent to bigwig. In the Algonquian dialect of the Natick Indians of Massachusetts, mugquomp meant "great man." The Puritan missionary John Eliot even used it for the English words "duke" and "centurion" in his 1661-1663 translation of the Bible into Algonquian, the first Bible published in the Colonies. The popular etymology of mugwump--which explains the word by reference to the phrase "his mug's on one side of the fence and his wump's on the other"--is spurious.

And then there's big enchilada--one of the newest bigwig terms. On Richard Nixon's White House tape of March 27, 1973, the presidential aide John Erlichman can be heard calling Attorney General John Mitchell "the big enchilada"--the biggest bigwig yet linked by investigators to the mess of scandals known as Watergate. Four years later, after the tapes had made big enchilada a slang fixture, Erlichman, an enchilada aficionado, told William Safire that he had cooked up the new meaning himself. Had the tape not been running, our food-allusive slang for big shot might still be limited to big cheese. Big cheese preceded big shot itself, which burst onto the scene in the 1920s, frequently in discussions of crime. Conjecture is inevitable: big shot may have been based on big gun, with a little help from the once popular big noise. Erlichman mused that he might as easily have called Mitchell "the big fish," a metaphor from at least the 1830s which probably made its debut in American literature in James Fenimore Cooper's The Redskins (1846). Unlike a big cheese, a big fish (most often some kind of ringleader) is usually somebody to be hooked by law-enforcement officials rather than to be envied for his power and success.

Doing the hooking could be the man--a term for anybody in authority, male or female, from the cop on the beat all the way up. This is an idiom long applied in the South to any man whose role is obvious in conversational context ("The washing machine's on the blink again." "Better not fool with it--call the man"). The civil-rights movement broadcast the specific sense "policeman." The Man (usually capitalized) soon personified "the System," especially as conceived in neo-Marxist doctrine.

Illustration by Nancy Gibson Nash

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1996; Word Improvisation; Volume 277, No. 2; page 116.