Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Muck-A-Muck

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 15, 2011

Kloshe Konaway as Idiomation takes on the expression “muck-a-muck.”  Undoubtedly, the phrase muck-a-muck has been heard on more than a few occasions.   It’s used in reference to someone who is important, influential, or high-ranking, but especially when that person is pompous or conceited.

In the fictional novel, “1633” written by David Weber and Eric Flint and published in 2002, the following is found:

He gestured over his shoulder with a thumb.  “They’ve got guards posted at a walkway that leads over to the other side of the street, and they  made real clear that I wasn’t allowed to go across.  Said we had to wait until some muckety-muck — I didn’t catch the name — showed up.”

Readers of the Anchorage Daily News were treated to an interesting article on April 13, 1978 written by Jack Anderson entitled, “Washington Merry-Go-Round: Plugging The Carter Leaks.”

From time to time, we have published excerpts from the confidential minutes and memos of the Carter Cabinet. This has upset the muck-a-mucks who attend the meetings.  They have started to go bananas over their inability to find and block the leak.

And on February 12, 1927, in a Special to the New York Times from Canton, Ohio, the trial of Ben Rudner for complicity in the murder of Don R. Mellet, Canton publisher, was reported.  William Betzler was put on the stand as the prosecution attempted to link Ben Rudner with Patrick McDermott as the gunman in the crime.  William Betzler’s testimony included:

The next day he came to my house again and told of having been on a ‘wild party’ with some ‘high muckety-mucks’ the night before.

The Oregon Native Son (Volume 2) was published by Native Son Publishing Co. in 1900 from the original which was published at Harvard University.  In it, readers learned that:

The year 1849 brought quite an influx to the county population. The Robinsons and Riggs settled on Camas swale, east of Spencer butte. The swale was named from the plant scilla esculenta, or the camas of the natives, which grew there in abundance and formed one ol the principal ingredients of the red man’s muck-a-muck.  Christy Spencer settled near the Scotts at this time and Elias Briggs located his claim where Springfield now stands.

On November 17, 1879, the following was written in the history of Denver (CO) as entered, according to the Act of Congress in 1880, by O.L. Baskin and Co. in the Office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington, D.C.:

Chief Johnson was again called to the stand this morning, and administered the following oath to himself, in a solemn and awe-inspiring manner : “By the Great Horn Spoons of the Paleface and the Great Round-faced Moon, round as the shield of my fathers; by the Great High Muck-a-Muck of the Ute Nation; by the Beard of the Prophet; by the Continental Congress and the Sword of Bunker Hill.”

In a letter dated March 1866 and written by Mark Twain while he was in Hawaii, the following conversation is recounted in the amusing style for which Twain is known:

At this moment, this man Brown, who has no better manners than to read over one’s shoulder, observes:

“Yes, and hot. Oh, I reckon not (only 82 in the shade)! Go on, now, and put it all down, now that you’ve begun; just say, ‘And more “santipedes,” and cockroaches, and fleas, and lizards, and red ants, and scorpions, and spiders, and mosquitoes and missionaries’–oh, blame my cats if I’d live here two months, not if I was High-You-Muck-a-Muck and King of Wawhoo, and had a harem full of hyenas!” (Wahine, most generally pronounced Wyheeny, seems to answer for wife, woman, and female of questionable character, indifferently. I never can get this man Brown to understand that “hyena” is not the proper pronunciation. He says “It ain’t any odds; it describes some of ’em, anyway.”)

I remarked: “But, Mr. Brown, these are trifles.”

The earliest published version Idiomation could find –despite that the Oregon Native Son mentioned use of the word in 1849 — was used to advertise a grocery store in the Portland Oregonian in 1853:

Thomas Pritchard, General Store: Hiou Muckamuck of all kinds.

The word muck-a-muck is from the Chinook (Pacific Northwest North America Indian) language where  mamook muckamuck is a cook and a high muckamuck is someone who sits at the head table — in other words, a bigwig.  The expression is still in wide use in British Columbia among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures. 

Various forms of the expression can be found including “mackamuck,” “muckety-muck” and “mucky-muck,” either with or without the “high” and the hyphens.

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2 Responses to “Muck-A-Muck”

  1. Jeremy Busch said

    Okay, so how does the quote “The swale was named from the plant scilla esculenta, or the camas of the natives, which grew there in abundance and formed one of the principal ingredients of the red man’s muck-a-muck” fit here? It would seem to apply to what a muck-a-muck might serve, not the muck-a-muck himself.

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