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McGuffin

Q From Sharon Villines: I have three spellings for the word that was used by the famous director Alfred Hitchcock for the object of desire in a mystery story: MacGuffin, McGuffin, maguffin. Which is the earliest spelling and where did it come from?

A According to the online Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded usage is in a typescript of a lecture that Alfred Hitchcock gave at Columbia University on 30 March 1939:

We have a name in the studio, and we call it the “MacGuffin”. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

He is said to have derived it from a brief story of the shaggy-dog type told by his friend and colleague Angus MacPhail, an extraordinary valetudinarian eccentric with the memory of an elephant who delighted in wordplay, puns and puzzles and who at one time earned his living by making up jokes for Tommy Trinder. This is one version of the story:

The derivation of McGuffin, for a gimmick, is obscure. Hitchcock’s best explanation is also obscure. “There is a bloke on a train,” says the English director. “He sees a package, and asked what it is. Man says it’s a McGuffin. Other man asks what is a McGuffin? Other cove says a McGuffin is an apparatus for trapping lions in the Adirondacks. ‘But there are no lions in the Adirondacks,’ other bloke says. ‘Then this thing is no McGuffin,’ second lad says.”

El Paso Herald-Post, 22 Feb. 1950. Later versions place the action in Scotland rather than the Adirondacks, presumably to give a good reason for the choice of name.

Garson O’Toole of the American Dialect Society points out that tales of similar form had been told for many years, particularly this one about a mongoose:

An inquisitive old broker noticed a queer bundle upon the lap of a man sitting opposite him in the horse-car. He looked at the bundle, in wonder as to what it might contain, for some minutes; finally, overmastered by curiosity, he inquired:—
“Excuse me, sir; but would you mind telling me what is in that extraordinary bundle?”
“Certainly, a mongoose,” replied the man.
“Ah, indeed!” ejaculated the broker, with unslacked curiosity. “But what is a mongoose, pray?”
“Something to kill snakes with.”
“But why do you wish to kill snakes with a mongoose?” asked the broker.
“My brother has the delirum tremens and sees snakes all the time. I am going to fix ’em.”
“But, my dear sir, the snakes which your brother sees in his delirium are not real snakes, but the figments of his diseased imagination, — not real snakes sir!”
“Well! this is not a real mongoose.”

Henry Irving’s Impressions of America, by Joseph Hatton, 1884. The piece had a moral attached: “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies”.

Like the thing in the parcel, the identity of Hitchcock’s McGuffin is slippery. It’s the trigger for the story, the pretext on which the action depends that is used to catch the attention of the audience, but which isn’t important or relevant to the plot. It’s merely a catalyst, what one writer has called a “indispensable inconsequentiality”. This is how Hitchcock himself described it in a famous interview:

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the “MacGuffin” is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.

Hitchcock, by François Truffaut, 1967.

Where McGuffin ultimately comes from is unknown. The prime assumption must be that it is the proper name, not a particularly unusual one. There's a hint of something more behind it, however, in that guffin turns up a very few times meaning a stupid, clumsy person, and also as a Cornish fishing term for ground-bait. But that may be a red herring, as may gubbins, a British colloquial term for miscellaneous items or paraphernalia. Also very probably quite irrelevant is its isolated appearance in the US journal The Writer in 1926, in which Robert Haven Schauffler says “I forget who was the creator of ‘McGuffin,’ but a ‘McGuffin’ is a gift that is not to be opened until Christmas.”

These days the term has spread beyond film. In books searchable online, the spelling is split almost equally between MacGuffin and McGuffin, the latter being the OED’s preference and the one that’s more common in British publications. The lower-case version is currently rare; it’s just possible that it may prevail as the word becomes generic and the links to its origin are lost.

Page created 25 Jul. 1998
Last updated 27 Nov. 2010

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Last modified: 27 November 2010.