Mugwumps, haggis, and whether Americans understand geography

If you don’t live in Britain, you may not have heard that Boris Johnson recently called Jeremy Corbyn a mugwump. So I have a couple of questions for you:

  1. Have you ever heard of Boris Johnson?
  2. Have you ever heard of Jeremy Corbyn ?
  3. Do you know what a mugwump is?

If you do live in Britain, I’m going to assume that by now you can answer yes to all three questions, since barrels of ink (real and virtual) have been spilled over this, but bear with me while I fill in a bit of background. Or skip ahead. I’ll never know.

Boris Johnson is the bad boy of the Conservative Party—one of those politicians about whom people say, “He’s not as dumb as he seems to be.” (Apologies for that “about whom.” I don’t usually write that way, but I couldn’t get the sentence to work any other way.) I kind of suspect he is that dumb, but he’s from the 1%– or the 0.1%–and went to all the right schools and knows all the right people. That can make a person look smarter than they are. Because they know the secret handshakes. Because they learned to say stupid things in Latin, which keeps the rest of us from thinking, What was the point of saying that?

So you know, they get hand fed all the stuff that really, really matters in life.

Irrelevant photo: It’s time for a cat picture, don’t you think? Here’s Fast Eddie, sleeping through the news.

Johnson started his career by losing a journalism job for making stuff up, then got another journalism job and continued to make stuff up but he was working for—well, let’s say it wasn’t one of the finer examples of the journalists’ trade, so they didn’t care. Then he went into politics and eventually became a leading light in the Brexit campaign, where he continued to make stuff up, including the promise that if Britain left the European Union there’d be scads of money to invest in the National Health Service, which desperately needs it because the party he belongs to is systematically starving it but has spent a lot of money reorganizing it. Twice.

I don’t sound bitter about this, do I?

And Corbyn? He’s the head of the Labour Party and he’s trying to move it sharply to the left, over the not-dead and loudly protesting bodies of his own party’s officials and Members of Parliament. Why is he the leader of the party if it hates him? Because a majority of the members love him. The party may yet end up exploding like an unpierced haggis in boiling water (see below–it’ll all make sense eventually)  but everything’s still up for grabs.

The newspapers also hate him, but somehow every time you see a picture of him he looks as serene as if he hasn’t noticed.

But back to our exercise in grown-up politics: Boris Johnson called Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump,” and since then every journalist in the country has googled mugwump at least once, but you can do it half a dozen times and still come up with new definitions.

In one version, a mugwump is someone who’s independent, especially of party politics. In another, it’s someone who bolted the (American) Republican Party after 1884. (Sorry–I haven’t bothered with links for all of these. I got bored.) Other sources note that it’s originally from the Algonquin language and means, according to one source, kingpin and according to another war leader. Whatever the original word was, if indeed it was Algonquin, I suspect it’s been mispronounced into unrecognizability by now and I’m not sure I trust the definitions I’m finding either. History’s written by the victors, and I’m pretty sure the dictionaries were too.

Just to confuse the picture, Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling used the word and assigned it their own, completely unrelated, definitions.

What did Johnson think he meant? Who knows? I suspect he was going for sound, not sense.

Corbyn—wisely, I’d say—hasn’t responded, but his deputy party leader, Tom Watson, after holding out for a few days, took the bait. He called Johnson a “caggie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about.” Translation? A left-handed (caggie-handed; Midlands slang) insignificant person (fopdoodle) with a talent for being a slob (slummocking about). And cheese headed? The first thing that comes up on Google is a cheese-head screw—a screw with a raised head. In the U.S., a cheesehead is a person from Wisconsin. You can even buy cheesehead hats to wear to football games.

Oh, hell, I think it’s football. Forgive me. I have a sports allergy.

Anyway, it’s not at all clear what it means but it sounds goods good enough that it might catch on. If only someone will assign it a meaning.

And in case you think any part of that insult was spontaneous, it was announced the day before Watson gave the speech where he was scheduled to use it.


While we’re on the subject of Boris Johnson, he used a major speech to tell the world that leaving the European Union would be good for Britain because it would allow the country to sell haggis to Americans.

What, you ask (if you’re not British), is haggis?

No, J.K. Rowling did not make it up. It’s real and it’s Scottish, but what it is depends a bit on who you ask. Wikipedia (at the moment) says it’s “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach, though now often in an artificial casing instead.”

A pudding, by the way, isn’t necessarily sweet. It can be pretty much any kind of shaky food. It can also be something sausagey. Or, irrelevantly, it can be used to mean any sort of dessert. Basically, it’s one of those words the British use to confuse outsiders.

It works.

MacSween says haggis is Scotland’s national dish: “Simply lamb, beef, oats, onions and spices, nothing more, nothing less.”

Let’s go with the first definition, since it’s the more vivid one. Convincing Americans to buy sheep’s lungs, liver and heart, sewn into a sheep’s stomach along with a bunch of oatmeal is going to be—how shall I put this? You won’t be able to fund the National Health Service on what you make selling that to Americans. We’re delicate little beasts who don’t like to be reminded that the meat we eat originally had internal organs.

And we don’t mix meat with oatmeal.

But I could be totally wrong about that.

Want a recipe? They this one. But be sure to pierce the stomach a few times. As the recipe says, if you don’t it’ll explode when you cook it.

Do the Scots know how to have fun or what?


I haven’t exploded any haggis this week, but it’s been a while since I had this much fun with politics. Donald Trump announced that Andrew Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War; he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

To his great regret (yes, I’m intuiting that), Jackson was already dead when the American Civil War started, but have you ever heard of American exceptionalism? It’s the belief that America is different (and although this isn’t usually said directly, better) than other nations. Jackson’s comment on the Civil War isn’t what I thought American exceptionalism meant, but I could’ve misunderstood the concept.

The flap about Jackson’s from-beyond-the-grave commentary led to new publicity for a plaque Trump put up on one of his golf courses commemorating a Civil War battle that never happened–the River of Blood.

Tell me, someone: How do we write satire anymore?


Derrick Knight asked in a comment, “Aren’t Americans renowned for having no idea of the geography of the rest of the world?”

Well, yes and no. It’s not exactly that we’re ignorant. What we’re doing is carrying on the tradition that brought European explorers to our shores to begin with.

But maybe I’m being defensive. Let’s look at a few statistics:

In 2006, National Geographic News reported that a majority of young Americans couldn’t find Iran, Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, the Sudan, or Indonesia on a map. Half of them couldn’t find New York State.

In a 2014 survey, six percent couldn’t find the U.S. on a map.

But the problem may be that they can’t read maps. Told they could escape a hurricane by going northwest, only two-thirds in the 2006 survey could find northwest on a map. But every last one of them could find both the refrigerator and the bathroom when they felt the need, so they’re capable of basic navigation.

When I lived in Minnesota, if someone had told me I could escape a hurricane by fleeing to the northwest, I’d have laughed my ass off. Minnesota’s too far inland for hurricanes. Tornadoes? Yeah, we got those, and the common wisdom at the time was that you should hide in a corner of your basement, but I never did remember which one. Not because I didn’t know northwest from southeast but because—well, you’d have had to see my basement to understand why a nice clean death by a tornado looked like a better idea than getting get trapped down there for a few days.

In addition to which my memory’s lousy and always has been.

The article also reports, “Fewer than three in ten [young people] think it’s absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Only 14 percent believe speaking another language fluently is a necessary skill.

“Fewer than one in five young Americans own a world map.”

And, basically, they don’t seem to care. Did Columbus own a map? If he did, did it help him?

So what do Americans do well? We have a great sense of humor about what we don’t know, at least if we can judge by what seems to have been a school assignment. Scroll through at least a few of these maps. I beg you. They’re wonderful. You might even ask yourself how many of the countries you could label correctly and if you’d have been as funny about the ones you don’t know.


I’m thinking about breaking up these longer, multi-topic posts and putting the individual parts up throughout the week. I’ll still post on Fridays–that’ll be my minimum–but the post is likely be shorter if I’ve posted during the week. Any opinions?

87 thoughts on “Mugwumps, haggis, and whether Americans understand geography

  1. What a lovely multi-topic post. You have a butterfly mind and I applaud you for it. I am now living back n Scotland. Not only that … but our almost next door neighbour is the Trump Turnberry Hotel. Haggis. I loathe and detest it. Black pudding is nice though. Mugwump is a jolly nice word. As for Boris and Jeremy. Well … least said. 😀🍻

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually rather like Jeremy, although it’s hard to know if he’ll be able to pull anything out of the grab bag that his party is right now. And if he does manage to unite it–well, I like the direction he leans in but haven’t gotten any sense of what he’s capable of in practical terms. That may be because he’s a bit out of focus and it may be because he hasn’t been able to break through the media’s dislike for him. I can’t tell. Haggis, though, I can’t manage to find any sympathy for.

      Maybe you could sneak into the hotel next door and hide one behind the sofa.


  2. My geography it terrible!

    my UK geography is passable… my European geography is no better than many of those people in the link, and worse than some… my US geography is sketchy at best and the rest of the world…I cold get the big bits right but the details would be glossed over…
    I do own a map though so I can look it up!
    And that is a person with a degree and a PGCE and several professional qualifications.

    I am not too worried though as I am unlikely to have to navigate from here to anywhere out of the country, there are people with good geography and navigation systems to do it for me…

    maybe this is because my geography at school was concerned with human populations and giving me the wrong information about canals and not concerned enough with colouring in maps…

    I like haggis, but my brain sabotages it and tell me I don’t because it knows what is in it… it makes eating it quite confusing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe if we disguise the haggis as ice cream…

      In school we had to color in endless maps. My geography isn’t much better than yours, and possibly no better. So coloring in maps isn’t the answer. I’m not sure what is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think maybe just never telling people what is in haggis might work…

        I am not sure what the answer to geography is…
        possibly having to navigate more often would help. But I can’t see schools letting children loose in Mongolia and telling them to get themselves to France…
        (Or other more sensible choices of place)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This made me snigger way too much. I wish Aussie politics had as much colourful language. Basically our pollies just call each other dickheads or c**ts. Mugwump and Cathie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle is much more original. Plus, irrelevant cat photos make me smile. Sadly, I DID know what haggis was due to a Scottish friend who thinks haggis is the best thing since… well, haggis.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Just keep going the way you are Ellen -just love your humour/humor(see what I did there?) great writing from a small person! cheers Cheryl x

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I went to Scotland a few years ago I felt as one with Scottish roots I should try haggis. It was without question the most vile thing I have ever tasted and it took months not to shudder at the mere thought of haggis. With that one exception, every other moment in and experience of Scotland was sublime. Still, if the U.K. starts exporting haggis to America, that could well be interpreted as an act of aggression. Fortunately for you, we apparently don’t know where England or Scotland are—and we are completely incapable of reading a map—so watch out, Portugal. Thanks for sharing the maps—proving once again that American ignorance knows no bounds … though our November ’16 election should have already made that abundantly clear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, god, poor Portugal. A country (I’m told) with sublime food getting attacked because of a haggis. How awful.

      Thanks for making me laugh out loud. I needed that right about now. And thanks also for an unfiltered report on haggis. I’ve always been told it’s not as bad as it sounds. Faint praise indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have heard of Jeremy Corbyn but not Boris Johnson. And I think I might be a mugwump. Not that I was alive in 1884, though I have relations that are still upset about something that happened in the family in the 1870s. I started off my life as a young Republican and deserted the party after the first election I was eligible to vote in and then never chose another. I am a political party of one! I call it the Spotted Owl party when people ask what political party I subscribe to. Thanks for reminding me of Mugwump. I may go with that answer instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Spotted Owl Party? I like it. If you shift your allegiance to the Mugwump Party, you might as well research what the split was about. (I didn’t, sadly. I’d like to know but my time didn’t stretch that far.) Sooner or later, you’ll run into someone who’s heard of it.


  7. Yes please, to the shorter posts – I don’t know if this reflects my attention span or the number of notices in my inbox – or both, I suppose.

    As for “American exceptionalism” – is this the “thing” by which “they” (the editorial “they”) refer to the POTUS as the leader of the free world? If so, “they” need to re-think that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think they’re related in the sense of self-importance They have about the country, but not exactly the same. American exceptionalism holds–as I understand it–that the normal rules of history, physics, and gravity don’t apply.

      Thanks for the comment on shorter posts. We’ll see where this goes–and probably all be surprised.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My weeks are mad rushes to Friday, so I’d probably miss some of your beauts if you chopped them up. This post just keeps adding stuff so that I’ve ended up in hoots after looking through the maps. Hahaha. I just don’t understand why everyone knows where Italy is: do we deserve it? Boris Johnson is up there with your Potus, but has one up on him: he can write. Books too, like excellent one on Churchill. Crazy, huh? I’ve never had haggis and hope I never wil, no offense meant to anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought I had a perfect excuse not to try haggis, but apparently someone’s come up with a vegetarian version. I suspect it’s a bit like vegetarian turkey, which is to say not even vaguely turkey, but I haven’t been in a situation where I had to try it, so I’m as innocent of haggis as you are.

      I do love the maps. Glad you did as well. And thanks for the comment on spreading out posts during the week. At this point, it’s just a thought. If I’m strongly tempted, I’ll probably try it out and see how it works.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fast Eddy’s got it right – sleep through the news. I’ll bet he doesn’t go on social media, either.

    I can confirm that Wisconsinites wear cheeseheads to football games. Did you know there was once a lawsuit by one foam cheese hat manufacturer against another for copyright infringement? Only in Wisconsin can there be a huge fight over fake cheese.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have seen the maps. Those are fun. I’ve also seen people from other countries try to do our states — also fun. I’d ace the US, Western Europe, and the larger countries all around. Eastern Europe? HAHAHA, No.
    I kid you not, we sat here the other night, two educated adults, and asked ourselves where the hell Carthage had been. We’d thought northern Med, but um, no. Quite the learning, care of 13’s homework. Worst of all, we both had the feeling like we USED to know that.

    Satire is difficult these days, because life is so surreal, people can’t tell the difference.
    Many people put oats in their meatloaf. I think meatloaf is gross and would rather just eat the oats.
    Pudding is a ridiculous term because I have not been able to pinpoint its meaning. Seeing you can’t quite, either, I feel better.

    I do so enjoy your posts :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Joey. I do struggle with the British idea of pudding. And just to complicate it all, what you call it depends on what class you belong to. I think but wouldn’t swear that pudding is upper class for dessert. Possibly. No, don’t ask me. I just told you as much as I think I know. So I’ll struggle with that and let’s just ignore geography, okay?


  11. I make my own haggis…when we slaughter some sheep for the freezer. I use a recipe for venison haggis which works for me. My only problem is obtaining suet as Costa Ricans believe it should be used for dubbining boots.
    The butcher is now trained to dive into his cold room and return with a lump of suet but he still regards me dubiously.

    What a wonderful idea to bomb the U.S. with inappropriately cooked haggis: nerve gas would have nothing on it….then, once the country was immobilised, send a few Scots engineers over to sort out the communication systems and we´d have it looking – and behaving – like Canada in no time.

    Haggis power.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. These maps are so hard to take. Even I don’t know 1/4 of these states for sure. And please, USA, never split up, because nobody would be able to do your map, beyond Alaska, Florida, California… New York… New Jersey. Texas is kinda big. And then… one huge “Sorry” all over the Bible Belt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fast Eddie was willing to discuss Andrew Jackson until I explained that he was a dead American human. Then he lost interest. Dead American humans don’t open refrigerator doors.

      And for the record: I would never try to feed Fast Eddie haggis. He’s a Cornish cat. Pasties yes. But haggis? Never.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I would keep the long multi-subject post. I did not find the British politician bit interesting, and I already know haggis is disgusting, but the last bits were very good. Others will disagree. This way there is something for everyone.


  14. As usual you have given me much to ponder, not the least of which is the sad state of politics both there and here. Oh, and I tried haggis while we were in Scotland and liked it. A lot. But my husband says I’m not normal.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Johnson really said the UK would export haggis to the US after they were out of the EU? Ahem–it’s not the EU stopping the haggis from crossing the Atlantic; it’s US laws. Animal lungs cannot be sold commercially for human consumption in the US [since 1971 (but under the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967)]. And everyone knows you can’t have authentic haggis without lungs.

    I found it fascinating that so many of the students labeling the maps knew where Luxembourg was but not Belgium or the Netherlands. Odd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hadn’t you heard? E.U. law is to blame for all bureaucratic mismatches, including those created by U.S. law.

      I hadn’t noticed that about Luxembourg. I was laughing too hard to take in much detail. My geography isn’t stellar and I find I have a much easier time identifying countries that stick out into the ocean because the shapes stay with me. Which doesn’t explain why Luxembourg.


  16. I am now seized with an almost irresistible desire to describe a volatile situation as “about to explode like an unpierced haggis in boiling water.”

    What volatile situation, you may ask? Doesn’t matter. I’ll make one up, if need be. I’ll create one myself! This is how much I love my new simile…

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Great post that made me laugh! Found you on Danny’s meet and greet…..BTW did you see Robert Peston giving his definition of a mugwump on Have I got News for you….v funny. As for the haggis…..anyone who hasn’t tasted it, it really is a lot better than it sounds – fav in our house x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly, I missed Robert Peston’s definition. As for haggis, the problem is that making jokes about it is so much fun it’d be a shame to have to give that up. Plus I’m a vegetarian. And I can’t see where vegetarian haggis is haggis at all. (Whether that’s good or bad is at matter of opinion.)

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Scott used to make haggis on January 1 (Hogmanay). He made a vegetarian haggis once to include a relative who was then not eating meat. It tasted like sawdust. He also made one with meat (not the combo you describe but whatever was on sale that week). It tasted like glue, sawdust and meat. After several years of having people make faces and then having to throw out something that looks like an intestine, he has stopped making haggis. No one has asked why.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I waited a lot of blogs to see a photo of Fast Eddie!!! <3 I had forgotten how much he looks like my twins. And "mugwump" just reminds me of "mogwoppits" (or moggies or mogs) which I affectionately call my fur kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your cats do look a lot like Eddie, only he’s got white paws and a white belly. And he’s smallish–he was the little guy of his litter.

      On a Facebook page I check out periodically (Cats Against Capitalism, in case you thought all cats are apolitical), someone asked for suggestions about what to name her cat. She settled, I think, on [I can’t remember what] Scissorpaws [something else]. Sorry–it’s better if you remember the full name. And then there was the discussion of what our cats call us. Ours, I think, have all tended to call us Person, since we call them Kitty.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting how that happens. Eddie’s our only cat and although Wild Thing always wants just one more animal, no matter how many we have, we recently read that cats don’t necessarily appreciate having the company of another cat. Which is a long-winded way of saying that we don’t know where he’d rank in a hierarchy, but he has seen the occasional invading cat off the property.

          That said, he’s still a spooky little guy, and it takes him a while to warm up to people.


          • Stop Wild Thing while you can, LOL. I couldn’t stop myself from having six cats. I would never do that again, certainly not all boykittens! My girl hates the boys and especially the new kittens. I had never heard her growl in seven years until the twins came home.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Gotcha. Moggy–the elderly cat we had–was not impressed with Eddie when we got him. Or, now that I think of it, with his predecessor, Smudge. With 20/20 hindsight, I’d have to say we added cats for us, not for her.


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