Hitchcock's McGuffin story possibly derived from a story about an imaginary mongoose

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun Oct 17 11:05:38 UTC 2010

On October 8th Jonathan Lighter posted to the list about OED's
(September 2010) entry on Hitchcock's term McGuffin. Here is a link to
his post:


Stephen Goranson posted valuable information about the term to the ADS
list back in 2008. Here is a link:


Hitchcock told a story about the term McGuffin to help explain its
meaning, but researchers to date have not been able to find earlier
occurrences of Hitchcock's story. (Alternate spellings include
MacGuffin, Maguffin, Magoffin).

Here is the yarn told by Hitchcock in the famous 1967 interview with
Francois Truffaut:

You may be wondering where the term originated. 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
So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.


I hypothesize that Hitchcock's story was derived from a previous story
about an imaginary mongoose that is supposed to attack imaginary
snakes. The term McGuffin was substituted for the term mongoose in the
modified story. Below I give an 1884 version of that tale from a
volume that presents it as an American story.

Note, Hitchcock's McGuffin story may actually be Angus MacPhail's
McGuffin story, or it may be a story from a British comedian, or an
American comedian. For simplicity, I will refer to it as Hitchcock's

The OED (and the Yale Books of Quotations) give a 1939 citation for
the first instance of MacGuffin (McGuffin).

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.

Further below is a 1944 cite from Time magazine that contains a story
that uses the term McGuffin. The Time editors call the tale "a hoary
British joke". A letter to the editors of Time magazine in 1945 claims
that the tale is "an extreme example of a good story gone wrong". The
letter writer then gives an abbreviated description of the mongoose

The first version of Hitchcock's McGuffin story (as told by Hitchcock)
that I have located is dated 1950. Interestingly, in this variant the
McGuffin apparatus is for "trapping lions in the Adirondacks". The
variant in the Truffaut interview reinforces the McGuffin name by
stating that the apparatus is for "trapping lions in the Scottish

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Cite: 1884, "Henry Irving's Impressions of America: Narrated in a
Series of Sketches, Chronicles and Conversations" by Joseph Hatton,
Page 248, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston.

The Fable of the Inquisitive old Broker and the Queer Bundle.

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 delirum 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.

Spurius Lartius.--I always liked that story. My father used to tell it.


Here is a collapsed version of the tale in 1887 to indicate that it
was present in London on that date.

Cite: 1887 May, Temple Bar: A London Magazine,  The Philosophy of
Voltaire's Romances, Page 99, Richard Bentley & Son, London.

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 author Elbert Hubbard claimed that the mongoose tale was
first told by prominent religious reformer Theodore Parker in 1856.
Here is Hubbard's retelling:

Cite: 1907, "Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Reformers: Volume
XXI" by Elbert Hubbard, Great Reformers: Theodore Parker, Page 81 and
82, Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York.

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 1939 Hitchcock lectured at Columbia and described the term
MacGuffin though there is no record that he told the story associated
with the term at that time.

In 1944 Time magazine discussed Hitchcock and the term McGuffin. In a
footnote the editors presented their own version of the McGuffin

Cite: 1944 December 18, Time magazine, Section: People, Time Inc, New
York. (Online Time magazine archive)

Alfred Hitchcock, round, restless British cinema director, famed for
his movie chillers (The 39 Steps, Rebecca, etc.), revealed that their
audience-paralyzing secret was a thing called "the McGuffin."* Said
he: "The McGuffin is the thing the hero chases, the thing the picture
is all about ... it is very necessary."

Here is the footnote supplied by the magazine:

* 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
"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."


This version of the McGuffin story is the closest to the mongoose
story that I have located. The McGuffin here is an animal. In
Hitchcock's telling the McGuffin is "an apparatus". Perhaps Hitchcock
wished to emphasize the mechanical and inconsequential nature of the
plotting contrivances that he favored.

Here the animal being hunted is a tiger. In the mongoose story it is a
snake, and in the Hitchcock's story it is a lion. The salient point of
similarity is that in each case the animal being hunted or trapped is
imaginary. In addition, the final twist reveals that the
mongoose-McGuffin is also imaginary.

In 1945 a letter writer recognizes that the McGuffin story is a
variant of the mongoose story and notifies the Time editors:

Cite: 1945 January 15, Time magazine, Section: Letters, Time Inc, New
York. (Online Time magazine archive)

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 I have
located. The McGuffin is for "trapping lions in the Adirondacks".

Cite: 1950 February 22, El Paso Herald-Post, "Hitchcock Frustrated as
World Steals His Plots" by Robert C. Ruark, Page 5, Column 1, El Paso,
Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

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."
"My trouble is plots," Hitchcock continues, in a rather simple
explanation of our fevered fifties. Whom can you use for a villain
now, after the atom stories and this fellow Klaus Fuchs?

If the McGuffin tale is derived from the mongoose tale then it is
natural to wonder how the term McGuffin was selected. Perhaps some
individual misunderstood or misheard the mongoose story and
substituted a word that sounded somewhat similar and that existed in
his or her vocabulary (an eggcorn-like evolution). Alternatively,
perhaps the change was deliberate because the creator of the modified
tale wanted a term that could refer to a non-animal or fantastical

I do not know, but I do hope that you found the above information
interesting and/or entertaining.


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