A review of a miniseries called “Labrynth” in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer says it has “lots of historical hugger-mugger.” The OED defines that last term as “Concealment, secrecy,” and notes, “Formerly in ordinary literary use, now archaic or vulgar.” The last citation given in the dictionary is an 1874 quote from John Lothrop “The trial was all mystery, hugger-mugger, horror,” but they might consider adding in the next edition this from Samuel Beckett’s 1939 More Pricks than Kicks: “‘No shaving or haggling or cold or hugger-mugger.”
Well, hugger-mugger may be vulgar but among American writers, it isn’t, or isn’t any longer, archaic. Hugger Mugger is the title of a 2001 Robert Parker novel, and the term has appeared five times in the New York Times since 2010, twice by Michiko Kakutani, and once in a quote from Stephen King.
Over in the U.K., it turns out the most common recent uses of the phrase are literal. That is, they refer to muggers who befriend, then embrace, then rob their victims: hugger muggers. This has been going on for at least five years. In 2009, The Telegraph quoted a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Sean Oxley:
“Basically it is strangers coming up to people and trying to befriend them and hugging them.
“There are people who try and dance with you while another method is for someone to play football with you in the street with a can. They try anything to get close so they can grab a wallet or a phone.” The “hugger muggers” often pretend to be drunk themselves and target people coming out of pubs and clubs in the early hours.
Just yesterday, the British press was full of reports of a hugger-mugger who was caught on closed-circuit TV. According to the Daily Mail, the victim, a 24-year-old student, “had been on a night out in central London when his attacker began talking to him about martial arts and acting out restraint moves. As the student turned around, the attacker suddenly put his arm across his throat and squeezed, causing the victim’s legs to crumple as he passed out briefly and fell to the ground. The suspect then ripped the victim’s watch a £5,00 Rolex Submariner with a silver bracelet and black face, off his wrist and fled.“
And here, in the interest of public safety, is the video: