Q From Leslie Tomlinson: What is the origin of the (British) term muggins? I saw a reference to it as a surname, so I’m wondering if it’s from an old play or historic event — especially as it always seems to be used in the first person. And is it related to any of the meanings of mug?
A As you say, it’s usually said by a person about himself, as a slightly bitter indication that he feels he has allowed himself to be exploited:
But did the MP offer to put the fare on his expenses? Aye, right. He stepped imperiously from the car, leaving muggins here to pick up the tab.
Daily Mail, 11 Oct. 2008. As in this example, the word is often followed by here, with the speaker literally or figuratively pointing to himself.
It’s not just British, though: Australians have Billy Muggins. And Americans know of it, too, though they encounter it mainly as the optional rule in the card game cribbage in which, if a player fails to claim his full score on any turn, his opponent may call out Muggins and take the overlooked points for himself. This is clearly a specialist use of the same term.
Muggins appears as a family name several times in eighteenth-century literary works — in particular by Tobias Smollett, John O’Keefe, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Dibdin — often for an exciseman (a British official who collected excise duties and attempted to prevent smuggling) or some other person who is foolish or easily tricked. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1703.
The OED also points out that Muggins belongs with a small set of supposed family names that indicate unsophisticated country attitudes, or a person easily imposed upon or lacking common sense. There’s Bumpkin (often generalised as country bumpkin), which probably comes from a Dutch word for a short, stumpy person, and Juggins, a nineteenth-century equivalent. Some writers have suggested that this last name comes from jug, which led them to argue that Muggins is indeed from mug.
Neither seems likely. Juggins is one of a number of variants of the Cornish or Breton family name Jekyll. And although mug, in its earlier sense of an unattractive face, is recorded from 1708 and so is contemporary with Muggins, mug meaning a stupid or gullible person is later, not being recorded in print until 1857.
We just don’t know the full answer.