Trend Watch

Boris Johnson Calls Jeremy Corbyn a 'Mugwump'

Lookups for the word increased by 62,185% after Johnson used a peculiarly American term

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's creative use of a distinctly American term, mugwump, left a good number of readers in the UK feeling a touch bumfuzzled this morning.

In a column in the Sun, Boris Johnson referred to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as a “mutton-headed old mugwump”, leading to much confusion about the meaning of the term and a peculiar kind of fallout just six weeks before the country heads to the polls.
—Matthew Weaver, The Guardian (, 27 Apr. 2017

Mugwump has been in use in the United States since 1828. Its initial meaning was akin to kahuna, pooh-bah, or big cheese.

The military stores belonging to the town, were removed from the house of the Mugwump, (who had been their depository,) and the means of producing an earthquake, it is believed, were thus removed.
The Bachelors’ Journal (Boston, MA), 3 Jul. 1828

In 1884 the word took on a new meaning, “one who bolts from the Republican party,” which was soon joined by a further extended meaning, “a person who is independent (as in politics) or who remains undecided or neutral.”

Mr. Johnson explained his choice of words on the television show Good Morning Britain, indicating that he had taken the use of mugwump from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (although as many internet sleuths have since pointed out, the word does not appear in this work; it may be found in the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator).

Mugwump is an anglicized version of a word used by Massachusett Indians to mean "war leader." The word for “the views and practices of mugwumps” is mugwumpery.

Trend Watch tracks and reports on the words that people are looking up. You can see all the Trend Watch articles here.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!