Mugwump Redivivus

In the present UK electoral climate, The Spectator has republished a 1959 article by Evelyn Waugh in which he expressed his views of elected governments: 

‘Mugwumps‘ are in the news today, after Boris Johnson used the term to describe Jeremy Corbyn. In the 2 October 1959 issue of The Spectator, Evelyn Waugh also used the term, when he wrote a piece entitled ‘Aspirations of a Mugwump.’ 

In another article in The Spectator, Dr David Butterfield of Queens’ College, Cambridge, thinks Boris misapplied the term:

Trust Boris to dominate the headlines by reopening that most famous of books, Johnson’s Dictionary. Writing in the Sun, our effortlessly provocative Foreign Secretary swiped at Jeremy Corbyn with this colourful barb: ‘He may be a mutton-headed old mugwump, but he is probably harmless.’ … In fact, there’s more to being a ‘mugwump’ than a throw-away jibe. The word comes from the original New Englanders, the Algonquins, for whom mugquomp meant ‘great chief’. It was a term of respect laden with connotations of nobility. But that presumably wasn’t what Boris had in mind. … the term ‘mugwump’ came to be associated with a group of Republicans who switched party affiliation in order to support the rival Democrat candidate. …Who were these Mugwumps, then? They were very firmly members of the establishment – high-class and high-society big beasts. They formed the traditional business elite, and saw themselves as figures of social and intellectual importance. …Boris Johnson is a man who can cut a phrase into a lapidary weapon with the very best of them… But I’m not yet sold on this one. Some may make a case for Corbyn being other things: a mugger (gurner), a muggletonian (a devotee of an obscure and misguided cult), muggins (fool), or just a mug (a hirsute-faced sheep). But here we are. For better or worse, mugwump – that plodding, doltish spondee – may well stay stuck to Corbyn.

From this disquisition on the term, it would appear that it was correctly applied to Waugh by whoever devised the title for his 1959 article. That article was published in The Spectator as part of a “symposium of election comments.” Essays, Articles and Reviews, p. 537; A Little Order, p. 139.

Waugh also appears in another Spectator article: “Debate: Is boarding school cruel?”. This has Alex Renton, who recently wrote a book on the history of British boarding schools: Stiff Upper Lip and Lara Prendergast, online editor of The Spectator taking opposite sides. Renton argues the affirmative (that they are cruel) and Prendergast, the negative (missing the opportunity to point out that a fictional namesake would probably have been on Renton’s side; although, maybe not–Prendy thought boarding schools and their students were cruel to underpaid and persecuted masters, but not necessarily the reverse). Her statement, in any event, implicates Waugh:

Literature does a good job of reinforcing the sense that boarding schools are ruthless places that churn out dysfunctional characters. Alex’s book is no exception. He has extrapolated from his own experiences, and found contemporary sources who confirm them. Boarding school is terrible for children, they say, supported by quotes from authors such as Dickens, Kipling and Evelyn Waugh. Alex paints a hellish picture. It’s just not one that I recognise.

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