What happens when you call a British MP 'mugwump'

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As Britain heads toward a snap general election, there’s one question on the minds of voters: What on Earth is a “mugwump”?

The query was prompted Wednesday by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s use of the word as an apparent insult in a newspaper column. Writing in the right-wing Sun tabloid, he attacked opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, warning that the Labour candidate would not be able to stand up to threats such as “a revanchist Russia,” the “semi-deranged regime in North Korea” and Daesh, which he referred to as “an evil Islamist death cult.”

Johnson argued that voters were underestimating the threat posed by Corbyn, an old-school leftist. “He may be a mutton-headed old mugwump, but he is probably harmless” is how the Conservative politician said concerns about Corbyn might be dismissed.

A mugwump? If you’re confused by that turn of phrase, you’re not alone. Although British political insults are often inventive — President Donald Trump was once referred to as a “wazzock” in Parliament — “mugwump” may have been a bridge too far. The word quickly became a top search term in Britain, and there was widespread discussion of the word on social media.

But really, what is a mugwump? Even after consulting a dictionary, the answer isn’t completely clear.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers two definitions: “A bolter from the Republican Party in 1884” or “a person who is independent (as in politics) or who remains undecided or neutral.” However, a further note explains that it is also “an Anglicized version of a word used by Massachusett Indians to mean ‘war leader’ ” and that “the word was sometimes jestingly applied in early America to someone who was the ‘head guy.’ ”

Meanwhile, the Oxford dictionary said the word referred to “a person who remains aloof or independent, especially from party politics,” noting that it came from the Algonquin word mugquomp, which meant “great chief.”

Confusing matters further, “mugwump” is used in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world to describe senior members of the “International Confederation of Wizards.” The word and others close to it also are used in books by Roald Dahl, making a notable appearance in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator as Willy Wonka refers to another character as “my dear old muddleheaded mugwump.”

Another literary reference, albeit directed at a more adult audience, could be found in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: In the famously abstract and sometimes obscene novel, the mugwumps are an alien-like species that resemble reptiles and secrete an addictive substance from their sexual organs.

Johnson elaborated little on his choice of words in interviews on Thursday morning. Appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, he initially sidestepped a question about “mugwump” and told the hosts that the risk was that voters viewed Corbyn as an “effectively benign harmless person,” even though his leadership would pose a risk to Britain.

Johnson said that he had not been making a reference to Harry Potter and that a mugwump was a “political put-down” that he may have first read in a Dahl book. In an interview with London’s LBC radio, Johnson also said he wanted to apologize to “mugwumps everywhere” for using the word to describe Corbyn.

Johnson’s column in the Sun marked a reappearance to the front line of party politics for the foreign secretary. The former mayor of London was a key leader in the 2016 Brexit campaign but has taken a back seat in the run-up to Britain’s June election — in what some speculated was a move engineered by Prime Minister Theresa May. Johnson’s media appearances on Thursday saw him face a grilling over allegations that he misled voters over potential savings for the National Health Service if Britain left the European Union.

Critics suggested that Johnson’s use of an obscure word showed not only that the upper-class foreign secretary was out of touch, but that he used insults and wordplay as distractions. Labour representatives dismissed his use of “mugwump.”

“It’s the sort of look-at-me name-calling that you would expect in an Eton playground,” MP John Healey told BBC’s Radio 4, referring to the exclusive private school where Johnson was educated, adding that the comment “demeans the position of Britain’s foreign secretary.”

“I leave that kind of language to others,” Corbyn told the BBC.

Tim Farron, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, also dismissed the word, suggesting that he wasn’t sure what it meant. He told reporters formo ITN: “It probably takes one to know one.”