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Your name is mud

Q From Mary-Carol Riehs and Thomas Pratt: Do you know where Your name is Mudd began? I’ve been told that it came from the name of Dr Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and was subsequently convicted as a conspirator.

A The facts about Dr Mudd are correct but he wasn’t the source.

Dr Mudd certainly treated Booth and was imprisoned as a conspirator in the assassination, though he was released after three years in jail and pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for taking over from the prison doctor, who had died during an epidemic of yellow fever. The story is often told that his name prompted the expression. However, even a cursory look at the evidence shows this can’t be true.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in December 2007, finds the first example of the phrase from 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, the term appeared in a British book, A Dictionary of the Turf. This was written under the pen name of John Bee by John Badcock, a man about whom so little is known that even his date and place of birth and death are unknown. It’s thought he was born about 1810 and died about 1830. A short life then, but one full of writings about horses and riding. His entry in the slang dictionary reads: “Mud, a stupid twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration, or of a leader in the Courier.”

It’s not from the family name Mudd but from the wet sticky earth stuff. It builds on a slang sense of mud recorded in the previous century. A book called Hell Upon Earth of 1703 includes the word in the sense of a simpleton or a fool. In turn, this probably derives from another that’s two centuries older still, in which mud meant the lowest or worst part of something, the dregs.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Feb. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 February 2008.