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Taking on the bigwigs and muckety-mucks

English has a few great phrases for the people at the top of an organization.  

Depending on where you stand in the hierarchy, you probably have a few of your own -- maybe even some that aren't appropriate for a public forum. We'll let you keep those to yourself.

Instead we're going to look at a pair of terms that are fairly print and radio appropriate -- bigwig and muckety-muck.

The origin of "bigwig" is actually pretty straightforward. Here's a hint: It has to do with wigs. Big wigs. In fact, the bigger your wig, the more authority you have.

This one goes back to the days when attorneys and judges would wear wigs in court. The judges got to wear the bigger wig, since they're more important. As a result, "bigwig" shows up in English sometime in the 18th century. 

The origins of "muckety-muck" are a little less clear. In dictionaries you'll sometimes see it as "high muckamuck" or just "muckamuck." We should point out that our spell checker doesn't like any of these spellings.

"Muck-a-muck" seems to derive from Chinook Jargon. Chinook Jargon developed in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. from contact between speakers of Chinook languages and speakers of French and English, as well as speakers from Hawaii and China. 

In Chinook Jargon, "muckamuck," or "mackamack," meant food and "hayo" meant plenty. Put those together and you've got "hayo-mackamack" -- literally, plenty of food.

Whoever was at the top or most important had the most food. In other words, they were the high muckamuck or high muckety-muck.

Are there other words for leaders or bosses that you've always wondered about? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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