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?