guffin, MacGuffin

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Mon Nov 24 12:39:36 UTC 2008

"MacGuffin," for an intrinsically-unimportant plot catalyst (definitions vary),
was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock; its origin is not fully known. Reportedly,
Hitchcock got the term from his movie-making colleague Angus MacPhail, according
to Ivor Montagu, "Working With Hitchcock", Sight and Sound, Summer 1980, p. 192.
Montagu wrote:
"The story conferences were a feast of fancy and dialectic, a mixture of
composing crossword puzzles and solving them, both laced with humour....
Sometimes Alma Hitchcock would be there; sometimes the scenario editor Angus
MacPhail, my old schoolmate. It was Angus who established the term 'MacGuffin'
for the unknown plot objective which you did not need to choose until
the story planning was complete. (The convenient word Hitchcock gleefully
adopted and used to the end of his career.)"

OED lists the word under McGuffin, though MacGuffin is the earliest spelling,
and perhaps the best attested. OED has a 1939 Hitchcock quote "...we have a
name in the studio...'MacGuffin'...the mechanical element...") and his 1967
interview: "...It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in
a train." That story about a parcel called a MacGuffin said to be for trapping
lions in Scotland; but they don't exist, so it isn't a MacGuffin. That story
appears to be made up, perhaps by Hitchcock, to explain an already-existing
word, not a story (unless someone can find it pre-1939) from which the word

OED says the term is "Probably unrelated to guffin n." OED defines guffin as a
stupid, clumsy person" with quotes from 1862 to 1882. HDAS has guffy "prob.
alter. dial. E. guffin" from 1856ff as "Naut. a lubberly seaman."

But guffin also has another definition, not in OED, later than and perhaps
derived from the above, though earlier than MacPhail, that is, as bait. Google
books has several examples. So, might "guffin" as "bait" be related to
"MacGuffin"? Or is this a red herring?

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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