More seal, Your Lordship?
Dear Word Detective: I’m sitting here at my desk in the HR office (I’m the security guard, and I have nothing better to do than read your site. Go figure.), and I tell the receptionist in the cube adjacent to mine that the gentleman passing the desk to the offices behind unannounced can do so because he must be a “mucky muck” (she had heard it “muckidy muck”), meaning someone of importance, or at least higher rank than us. I’m curious as to how “muck” got mixed in with the “upper crust” of the workplace, though if you ask me, I’d say it’s because when they open their mouths, the stuff that comes out resembles the muck in the gutters after a nice rain. I suppose that’s the kind of thinking that keeps me from being one. — B. Waligorski.
Gosharootie, why would a Human Resources department ever need a security guard? After all, their mission is to help employees realize their potential, right? On the the other hand, some folks probably get pretty annoyed when they discover that their potential has turned out to be standing in an unemployment line. Personally, I’ve always thought “Human Resources” is one of the creepiest locutions in the English language. Way too evocative of “Soylent Green” for my taste.
“Muck” definitely has an image problem. The word first appeared in the English language back in the mid-13th century, derived from Scandinavian roots, with the meaning “animal dung used as fertilizer,” and it’s been downhill since then. The nicest thing you can say about “muck” is that it’s commonly used today to mean simply a very slimy sort of dirt or mud, the kind you often find on the bottom of a pond or, as you say, in a gutter. “Muck” is also used in a variety of figurative senses, including to mean wealth or money (when regarded as corrupting), and it’s also applied to people regarded as despicable. But, poetic resonance aside, that “muck” has nothing to do with “mucky muck” meaning “a self-important person; a person who imagines he is more important than he actually is.”
The original English form of “mucky muck” was “high-muck-a-muck,” and it comes from Chinook Jargon, a hybrid of English, French and the Indian languages of the Pacific Northwest of the US once widely spoken in that region. In Chinook Jargon, “muckamuck” meant “food” (or, as a verb, “to eat”). With the addition of the Chinook word “hiu” (plenty), you had “hiu-muckamuck,” “lots of food” or “plenty to eat,” i.e., prosperous or wealthy. When this phrase was adopted by English-speakers unfamiliar with Chinook, the “hiu” was mistakenly understood as “high,” and the resulting English form was “high-muck-a-muck,” first appearing in print in 1856 meaning “a self-important person, a bigwig.” Various forms, including “mackamuck,” “muckety-muck” and “mucky-muck,” either with or without the “high” and the hyphens, have arisen since.