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.
- 1967, Hitchcock by François Truffaut with the Collaboration of Helen G. Scott, Quote Page 98, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩