Dear Word Detective: So okay, I lived a few years in Philly, I’ve moved on. But I always called what is otherwise a “big shot” a “big mahoff.” My grown daughter tried to research this when she got blank stares after using it around friends, and it seems to be a totally local expression. I tried to verify this tonight (rather than going back to work), and she seems to be right. Most of the citations are by Philadelphians, about Philadelphians or in Philadelphia publications. Whaddayathink, is this really just a Philadelphianism? — Diane Yaghoobian.
Could be. Maybe it refers to the guy who invented the cheesesteak, a.k.a. the Coronary Event on a Bun.
There must be something going on in Pennsylvania. The two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are both famous in linguistics circles for their idiosyncratic slang, terms often heard nowhere else on the planet. Natives of Pittsburgh, for instance, apparently call baloney sandwich meat “jumbo.” Put that baloney on a long roll with lettuce, tomato, etc., and you have what much of the rest of the US calls a “submarine sandwich” (or just a “sub”), but is known in Philadelphia (and southern New Jersey, to be fair) as a “hoagie.” Philadelphians also apparently call the sidewalk “the pavement.” Can you say “lost colony of space aliens”? I knew you could.
Now that I’ve ensured myself lots of mail from hoagieland, on to “mahoff.” As you’ve discovered, this is evidently a seriously obscure term outside of Philadelphia. It’s not defined in any major dictionary, it’s not listed in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), and it’s not even in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the gold standard of glossaries of weird local terms. Fortunately, Grant Barrett, a lexicographer at Oxford University Press, project editor of HDAS and proprietor of the Double-Tongued Word Wrester Dictionary website (www.doubletongued.org) did a write-up on “mahoff” in January 2005. He found print citations dating back to 1951, all using “mahoff” or “big mahoff” in the sense of “big cheese” or “important person.” Grant later contributed to a discussion of “mahoff” at Dave Wilton’s wordorigins.org site in which various origins from Irish to Russian were discussed, but no conclusion was reached. So, for the moment at least, “mahoff” remains a mystery.