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

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Oct 17 12:19:57 UTC 2010

Not just interesting and entertaining: brilliant!

It isn't clear whether _Time_ got their version of the story directly or
indirectly from Hitchcock himself.

Surely Hitchock, like most literate Britons, knew the difference between a
mongoose and a McGuffin. (Mongooses figure prominently in both Kipling and
Saki.) This, even more than the footnote, suggests that he'd heard the story
with "McGuffin" already in it, especially since in his version the animal or
apparatus is used to catch tigers, which is beyond the capability of

Of course, somebody had to have altered the joke and come up with
"McGuffin," and it may as well have been Hitchcock himself, but his remarks
lend no credence to that suggestion.

Again, very well done!


On Sun, Oct 17, 2010 at 7:05 AM, Garson O'Toole
<adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com>wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Garson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Hitchcock's McGuffin story possibly derived from a story
> about an
>              imaginary mongoose
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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:
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1010B&L=ADS-L&P=R861
> Stephen Goranson posted valuable information about the term to the ADS
> list back in 2008. Here is a link:
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0811D&L=ADS-L&P=R1891
> 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
> MacGuffin!"
> So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
> http://books.google.com/books?id=CdG0AAAAIAAJ&q=MacGuffin#search_anchor
> 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
> story.
> 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
> story.
> 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
> Highlands".
> 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.
> http://books.google.com/books?id=7ZjpGWZuPukC&q=delirium#v=snippet&
> 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.
> http://books.google.com/books?id=6pAYAQAAIAAJ&q=tremens#v=snippet&
> 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."
> http://books.google.com/books?id=qZoMAAAAYAAJ&q=mongoose#v=snippet&
> 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
> story:
> 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
> 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."
> http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,778277,00.html
> 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)
> Pre-McGuffin
> Sirs:
> 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."
> FARNUM F. DORSEY New York City
> http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,775358,00.html
> 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
> entity.
> I do not know, but I do hope that you found the above information
> interesting and/or entertaining.
> Garson
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