“Hugger Mugger”

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:

5 thoughts on ““Hugger Mugger”

  1. I applaud the resurrection of this hobson-jobson phrase with a new meaning, relevant to modern times, its original usage having dwindled.
    I suspect that the driver that creates shorthand phrases such as this is the need for journalists to say a lot in the few words of a headline. As the press is moving from paper to screens – where space constraints are less – I wonder if this clever art will die out.
    I also like these, which I think might also be journalists coinages:
    ‘Chugger’ (charity mugger – agent of a charity who accosts passers-by and tries to sign them up to donation schemes).
    ‘Chunnel’ (contraction of ‘channel tunnel’, widely used in the papers when it was under construction but died out quickly once it was opened).
    ‘Gender bender’ (acceptable in the ’70s and ’80s as a cover-all term for any person expressing other than traditional sexual appearance or behaviour; now eradicated in print to avoid offence).
    Also ‘Flo Jo’ ‘Toy boy’; ‘Brangelina’…

  2. Being British, I’d wonder:

    a) what was a student doing with a GBP five grand (USD 8,430) watch?
    b) if the watch was so good, why didn’t it suggest to him that he ought either to be labouring over his studies or in the land of nob as it was so late?
    c) why weren’t his daddy’s vor v zakone minders more alert to what was going on?


    Just desserts, I’d say. Kill the rich!

  3. ok so now I’ve watched this vid twice..before the huggamug–was that a hint of a romantic interlude about to happen? It sure doesn’t look like any martial arts maneuver I’ve ever seen?
    What kind of nut befriends a stranger at 3:40am???? what a wacky story!

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