Quote Investigator

MacGuffin Is the Term We Use To Cover All that Sort of Thing: To Steal Plans or Documents, or Discover a Secret, It Doesn’t Matter What It Is

Alfred Hitchcock? Elbert Hubbard? Theodore Parker?

Dear Quote Investigator: The influential English film director Alfred Hitchcock employed the term MacGuffin when he discussed the plots of his movies. He also told a peculiar story to explain the meaning of the term. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1967 the prominent director François Truffaut published a volume containing an extensive interview he had conducted with Alfred Hitchcock. While discussing Hitchcock’s film “Foreign Correspondent” Truffaut mentioned that the plot hinged on a secret known to an elderly gentleman: 1

A.H. That secret clause was our “MacGuffin.” I must tell you what that means.
F.T. Isn’t the MacGuffin the pretext for the plot?
A.H. Well, it’s the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after.

Hitchcock elaborated on the meaning of MacGuffin:

So the “MacGuffin” is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever.

Hitchcock presented a curious tale to help explain the origin of the term. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?”

“Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

QI conjectures that the story above evolved from a humorous anecdote about an imaginary mongoose, and the term MacGuffin was derived from mongoose.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1883 several U.S. newspapers printed a piece that originated in New York about a fictitious mongoose in a box: 2

SATISFIED CURIOSITY.
New York Chaff.

It was a quiet-looking little man, with a frayed mustache, who got on a Cass avenue car the other night; and he had a square wooden box under his arm, with rows of holes punched in the top, which immediately attracted the attention of a corpulent passenger, with a cotton umbrella, who was sitting near the door.

“I suppose you have some wild animal in that box?” said he, tapping it with his umbrella.

“Yes,” replied the other, shrinking into a corner.

“You have a museum somewhere, maybe?”

“No,” answered the small man, looking down at his feet.

“Well, might I ask what you have in that box?” questioned the fat man, his curiosity increasing.

“Certainly,” murmured the man with the box, looking like the chief mourner at a funeral.

There was a dead silence for several minutes, when the corpulent man spoke up somewhat impatiently, “Well, what is it?”

“It is a mongoose,” said the melancholy man.

“A mongoose—what’s that?” asked the man with the umbrella, leaning over and eyeing the box curiously.

“It is an animal that exterminates snakes, replied the small man, pulling his hat over his eyes.

“And what do you propose to do with it?” asked the fat man, opening his eyes until they looked like watch-dials.

“I don’t propose to do anything with it,” answered the other nervously. “It is for a friend of mine who has the delirium-tremens, and wants something to kill the snakes he sees.”

“But they aren’t real snakes, you know!” exclaimed the fat man, opening his mouth until the other could see his cork-soles.

“No, that’s true,” said the quiet man, getting up and putting the box under his coat: “but then this isn’t a real mongoose, you see!” And he evaporated out of the door, while the fat man stared thoughtfully out of the window at the flickering gas-lamps.

A storyteller like Hitchcock typically constructs a problem or challenge that must be solved by the characters in the tale. The protagonist faces obstacles and strives to find a superior solution. For example, the protagonist may wish to obtain the blueprints of an advanced device, so he or she develops a plan to break into a secure facility containing the blueprints and steal them.

The problem of capturing dangerous lions in the Scottish Highlands is solved by a MacGuffin. The challenge of killing hallucinatory snakes is solved by an invisible mongoose in a box. Crucially, both the problems and the solutions are the products of imagination. The MacGuffins in Hitchcock’s movies also represent fictional problems coupled with fictional solutions.

A popular English actor and stage manager toured the United States and published in 1884 “Henry Irving’s Impressions of America: Narrated in a Series of Sketches, Chronicles and Conversations” which included an anecdote heard during the tour: 3

An inquisitive old broker noticed a queer bundle upon the lap of a man sitting opposite him in the horse-car. He looked at the bundle, in wonder as to what it might contain, for some minutes; finally, overmastered by curiosity, he inquired:—

“Excuse me, sir; but would you mind telling me what is in that extraordinary bundle?”

“Certainly, a mongoose,” replied the man, who was reading “Don’t,” and learning how to be a real, true gentleman.

“Ah, indeed!” ejaculated the broker, with unslacked curiosity … “But what is a mongoose, pray?”

“Something to kill snakes with.”

“But why do you wish to kill snakes with a mongoose?” asked the broker.

“My brother has the delirium tremens and sees snakes all the time. I am going to fix ’em.”

“But, my dear sir, the snakes which your brother sees in his delirium are not real snakes, but the figments of his diseased imagination,—not real snakes sir!”

“Well! this is not a real mongoose.” — Moral. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.

The mongoose tale was further disseminated when a version appeared in “The Saturday Review” of London in 1885. 4 In addition, that piece was reprinted in “The Critic” magazine of New York. 5

In 1887 the word “Maguffins” appeared in a U.S. military history book. A soldier was marching with his regiment, and the context indicated that “Maguffins” were footwear, but this meaning seems to be unrelated to Hitchcock’s usage: 6

The slippers were all right until the rain came on, when it was not long before he was in his stocking feet, and then bare-foot. Of course he could not keep up under such conditions, and the regiment got ahead. Presently he came up with a straggler who had a pair of “Maguffins” strapped to his knapsack. Under promise of two dollars and a half next pay-day, the army shoes were transferred to the corporal’s feet.

By May 1887 the mongoose tale was sufficiently well known that the “Temple Bar: A London Magazine” presented a single sentence synopsis and expected readers to understand the reference: 7

The good offices of Cador by the way remind one of the story of the Englishman, unjustly accused of debt in Naples, whose friend undertook to get him off in her own way. This was “to best” his accusers. Whereas, five witnesses swore that they had seen the pursuer lend the money, the friend obtained ten to swear in their turn that they had seen it repaid. The whole affair was like the snakes which the drunkard saw in his fits of delirium tremens, and the mongoose in the basket which was to kill them.

In 1907 the well-known author and publisher Elbert Hubbard claimed that the mongoose story was first told by the minister Theodore Parker in 1856. QI has not yet found support for this assertion. Here is Hubbard’s retelling: 8

Recently there has been resurrected and regalvanized a story that was first told in Music Hall by Theodore Parker on June 19, 1856. The story was about as follows: Once in a stage coach there was a man who carried on his knees a box, on which slats were nailed. Now a box like that always incites curiosity. Finally a personage leaned over and said to the man of the mysterious package, “Stranger, may I be so bold as to ask what you have in that box?” “A mongoose,” was the polite answer. “Oh, I see—but what is a mongoose?” “A mongoose is a little animal we use for killing snakes.”

“Of course, of course—oh, but—but where are you going to kill snakes with your mongoose?” And the man replied, “My brother has the delirium tremens, and I have brought this mongoose so he can use it to kill the snakes.”

There was silence then for nearly a mile, when the man of the Socratic method had an idea and burst out with, “But Lordy gracious, you do not need a mongoose to kill the snakes a fellow sees who has delirium tremens—for they are only imaginary snakes!”

“I know,” said the owner of the box, tapping his precious package gently, “I know that delirium-tremens snakes are only imaginary snakes, but this is only an imaginary mongoose.”

In 1925 wordsmith Robert Haven Schauffler published an essay titled “Unborn Words” containing neologisms that he favored. The definition for “McGuffin” that he suggested has apparently never been widespread: 9

There is no end to our needs. One of them is “impreciation,” to denote the opposite of appreciation. Another is some single word for “pleasantly disappointed.” Might the two be telescoped into “pleasappointed”? I forget who was the creator of “McGuffin,” but a “McGuffin” is a gift that is not to be opened until Christmas.

The earliest evidence of Hitchcock’s use of MacGuffin is a 1939 citation listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary notes that different spellings have been employed, e.g., MacGuffin, Maguffin, and McGuffin: 10

1939 A. HITCHCOCK Lect. at Univ. Columbia 30 Mar. (Typescript, N.Y. Mus. Mod. Art: Dept. Film & Video), In regard to the tune, we have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

In 1944 “Time” magazine quoted Alfred Hitchcock saying: “The McGuffin is the thing the hero chases, the thing the picture is all about … it is very necessary.” The magazine also presented an interesting hybrid version of the anecdote: 11

By no means original with Hitchcock, the McGuffin is a hoary British joke about a parcel-toting man on a train meeting another man, who inquires:

“What’s in the parcel?”
“A McGuffin.”
“What’s a McGuffin?”
“A McGuffin is a small animal with a long, yellow, spotted tail, used for hunting tigers in New York.”
“But there aren’t any tigers in New York.”
“Ah, but this isn’t a real McGuffin.”

In 1945 a letter writer recognized the McGuffin story as a variant of the mongoose story and notified the “Time” editors: 12

The story of the McGuffin attributed to the British in TIME, Dec. 18, is an extreme example of a good story gone wrong.

In the classic story the animal concealed in the basket is a mongoose, to be given to a dipsomaniac who is infested by snakes. “But those snakes are only imaginary!” “Certainly, but so is this mongoose.”

In 1950 the syndicated columnist Robert C. Ruark printed an interview with Hitchcock in which he narrated the McGuffin story. This is the earliest instance of the tale directly told by Hitchcock that QI has located: 13

The derivation of McGuffin, for a gimmick, is obscure. Hitchcock’s best explanation is also obscure.
“There is a bloke on a train,” says the English director.
“He sees a package, and asked what it is.
Man says it’s a McGuffin.
Other man asks what is a McGuffin?
Other cove says a McGuffin is an apparatus for trapping lions in the Adirondacks.
“‘But there are no lions in the Adirondacks,’ other bloke says.”
“‘Then this thing is no McGuffin,’ second lad says.”

In 1967 François Truffaut published his book-length interview with Hitchcock as mentioned previously in this article. One passage presented Hitchcock’s “best MacGuffin”: 14

A.H. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”

The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

F.T. That’s right, nothing that is specific.

The 1983 biography “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock” by Donald Spoto ascribed the term MacGuffin to an English screenwriter who worked with Hitchcock: 15

Angus MacPhail was the one who established the term MacGuffin for the deliberately mysterious plot objective — the non-point — which they need not choose until the rest of the story was completely planned. This term Hitchcock quickly adopted, and, of course, he used it to the end of his career.

In conclusion, Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin in the film theory domain. The term emerged from an anecdote about a mysterious package ostensibly containing a MacGuffin. But that tale was a garbled version of a nineteenth century comical anecdote about an imaginary mongoose.

Image Notes: Picture of Indian Gray Mongoose; author: J.M.Garg; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Lighter whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to mailing list discussants Stephen Goranson, Jonathan Lighter, Robin Hamilton, Douglas G. Wilson, Dan Goncharoff, Victor Steinbok, and Joel S. Berson. Wilson and Goranson pointed to the 1925 citation. In addition, Goranson located a valuable instance of the mongoose tale dated April 10, 1883 which led QI to find an instance dated March 11, 1883.)

Notes:

  1. 1967, Hitchcock by François Truffaut with the Collaboration of Helen G. Scott, Quote Page 98, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1883 March 11, The Daily American (The Tennessean), Satisfied Curiosity, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1884, Henry Irving’s Impressions of America: Narrated in a Series of Sketches, Chronicles and Conversations by Joseph Hatton, Volume 1 of 2,Chapter 11: A City of Sleighs, Quote Page 290 and 291, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1885 September 5, The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, A Cure for the Sea-Serpent, Start Page 397, Quote Page 308, Column 1, Published at The Office of The Saturday Review, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1885 September 26, The Critic, Volume 4, A Cure for the Sea-Serpent (From The Saturday Review), Start Page 153, Quote Page 153, The Critic Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1887, Henry Wilson’s Regiment: History of the Twenty-Second Massachusetts Infantry, The Second Company Sharpshooters, and the Third Light Battery, In the War of the Rebellion by John L. Parker assisted by Robert G. Carter and the Historical Committee, Quote Page 81, Published by the Regimental Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1887 May, Temple Bar: A London Magazine, Volume 80, The Philosophy of Voltaire’s Romances, Start Page 91, Quote Page 99, Richard Bentley & Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1907 Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Reformers: Volume XXI by Elbert Hubbard, Great Reformers: Theodore Parker, Quote Page 81 and 82, Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1925, Peter Pantheism by Robert Haven Schauffler, Chapter: Unborn Words, Quote Page 57 and 58, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  10. Oxford English Dictionary Online, Head Entry: McGuffin noun, Citation 1939. (Accessed OED Online on March 1, 2018)
  11. 1944 December 18, Time magazine, Section: People, Time Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive at time.com)
  12. 1945 January 15, Time magazine, Section: Letters: Pre-McGuffin, Letter from: Farnum F. Dorsey, Time Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive at time.com)
  13. 1950 February 22, El Paso Herald-Post, Hitchcock Frustrated as World Steals His Plots by Robert C. Ruark, Quote Page 5, Column 1, El Paso, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 1967, Hitchcock by François Truffaut with the Collaboration of Helen G. Scott, Quote Page 99 and 100, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  15. 1993 (Copyright 1983), The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, Quote Page 145, Back Bay Books: Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)