Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Nov 27 21:35:57 UTC 2011

Of interest to MacGuffinites only. Others stay out.

Classicist James I. Porter has a few thoughts about MacGuffins in our
lives in his 2002 article, "Homer: The Very Idea" (_Arion_ Ser. 3, X,
No. 2, pp. 57-86).

Homer believes (more or less) that the idea of "Homer" is a MacGuffin,
because no one knows anything at all about him as an individual (even
his blindness is hypothetical); from one point of view, he was more of
a diachronically operating committee than a person; or, contrariwise
(as Tweedledee would say), he was the final editor, not the initiating
author, of either the Iliad or the Odyssey or both, at some time
between around 700 and 550 BC (or even later, if you're especially

So "Homer" is a name without  a solid referent.

Beyond that, Porter regards some theorizing about Homer to exhibit

...the logic of the MacGuffin (an impossible, non-existent object),
which as Hitchcock recognized, governs larger parts of our lives than
we are usually prepared to admit: ideas may be false and events may
not occur, but their effects can be real, and at times they can even
be more compelling than the truth. Thomas De Quincey nicely caught
this logic in a wry moment in his essay 'Homer and the Homeridae'
(1841): 'Some say, 'There never was such a person as Homer.' - 'No
such person as Homer! On the contrary,' say others, 'there were

Here's where it gets really cool: "Incidentally, if you are wondering
how to say MacGuffin in Greek, you need only think of the _eidolon_ or
phantom of Helen that, Stesichorus assures us, was the [deceptively
real-looking - JL] object that the Greeks fought over and the Trojans
defended at Troy" (65).

Porter - citing Hitchcock but apparently quoting Slavoj Zizek - notes
that "the MacGuffin can be ignored as soon as it has served its
purpose, but it rarely does this, and instead it tends to become the
object of endless fascination, despite its being "empty, nonexistent,
and absurd" (84).

Porter regards the Maltese Falcon as a MacGuffin; I would call that a
matter of interpretation.  He also cites Hitchcock's story of trapping
lions in the Scottish Highlands.

Several websites assert confidently that God is the Ultimate
MacGuffin. That might explain His notorious absence from Obama's
Thanksgiving Day remarks.

Unless calling attention to that absence is the real MacGuffin.


On Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 11:14 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: McGuffin
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Sun, 17 Oct 2010 Garson O'Toole wrote:
>>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.
> Hitchcock told the same tale in his interview with Dick Cavett,
> alleged on the Web to have been in 1972.  Recently re-aired on TCM --
> with Cavett breaking about every five minutes for commercials that
> were then frustratingly absent ... except once when he held up a sign
> to introduce some product (the commercial itself was still absent).
> (A similar story is told about elephants and strings of
> garlic.  Could Hitchcock's page have contained ...?  Now we no what a
> McGuffin really is.)
> Joel
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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