This word — meaning confused or disorderly and also secret or clandestine — was in the news recently, having been used to refer to a woman thief in New York who waits for men coming out of downtown bars, cuddles them and pinches their wallets. A similar usage is on record from Singapore in 2002, showing that journalistic catchword creation may know no geographic bounds but is limited in scope.
Though the origin of this curious expression is far from certain, one thing the experts are sure of is that the second half has no link with the term for someone who robs people in a public place.
More typical examples were in the Sunday Times in February 2006: “The only problem with a tropical paradise miles from the hugger-mugger, hurly-burly of the great grind is that it is cut off from news of the hugger-mugger, hurly-burly of the great grind.” and in the Daily Record in October that year: “They were the home front in the war against terror and anyone who objected must be an enemy of the state and hugger mugger with Osama Bin Laden.”
Hugger-mugger is a classic example of a reduplicated word, one in which its two halves are very closely similar in form. Some smaller dictionaries simply say “origin unknown”, but it’s known there were earlier forms that may have influenced each other to create it, including hucker-mucker, hoker-moker, hudder-mudder and Scots hudge-mudge. The two parts may be related to huddle and to a dialect term mucker, to hoard money or conceal things.
The original idea was of secrecy or concealment. The meaning of disorder or confusion came along later — as late as the nineteenth century as an adjective — but has largely overtaken the older one.