Forget putting selfie in the dictionary. We need to revive the word, mugwump.
I have been reading The American Language, by H. L. Mencken, a fascinating history of American English, although at 770 pages (and that’s the abridged version!) it’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve learned the history and origin of many familiar terms and those that are no longer common, but the passage that has struck me most is the one on mugwump.
Originally, it was an Algonquian word meaning “chief,” but became widely circulated during the Presidential election of 1884 when some Republican power brokers refused to support the party’s nominee, James G. Blaine. Those folks took it as a compliment, signifying their obvious “intellectual and moral superiority,” as Menken put it. Since then mugwump has been used to signify one who bolts from one’s own political party or as a political fence sitter. Mugwump was given another definition by General Horace Porter, however, and this is the context in which we absolutely must return this word to current usage. Porter, who received the Medal of Honor for his conduct during the Battle of Chickamauga, deserves a medal for defining mugwump as “a person educated beyond his intellect.”
You immediately see why a return of this word to common usage is necessary: Mugwumps seem to be everywhere. I.T. departments, insurance companies, school boards, and the screen actors’ guild have their fair share, and the condition is a prerequisite for any middle-management position. Then there’s that cousin who got a degree in Medieval Spanish literature who just covered the sweet potatoes with aluminum foil and tried to reheat them in the microwave.
Mugwumps have run amok in Washington where you can hit one by simply throwing a rock in any direction. A really big rock. Blindfolded.
Words such as idiot or moron have lost their steam and jackass, when applied to a politician, for example, is an insult to male donkeys everywhere. There are other terms, of course, but their constant inclusion in everyday conversation has taken all the starch out of them, although I’m happy to say that I know a healthy number of ladies who would still blush upon hearing such epithets which, to maintain their power, should be reserved for hitting your thumb with a hammer, driving a birdie putt eight feet past the hole, and the United States Navy.
For my money, Horace Porter was a genius, devising the greatest definition for any word that I have ever heard. It is a word whose application could be instantly universal, for the same reason that the word snow is popular in northern Alaska. Bring back mugwump.