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Jan 1, 2004
This week's theme
Words related to movies

This week's words
bogart
cinematheque
jeune premier
McGuffin
cineaste

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with Anu Garg

McGuffin or MacGuffin

(muh-GUF-in) Pronunciation

noun: A device that helps propel the plot in a story but is of little importance in itself.

[Coined by film director Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).]

A McGuffin could be a person, an object, or an event that characters of a story are interested in but that, intrinsically, is of little concern. For example, in Hitchcock's movie North by Northwest, thugs are on the look out for a character named George Kaplan. Roger Thornhill, an ad executive, gets mistaken for Kaplan and so he is chased instead. Meanwhile Thornhill himself tries to find Kaplan who doesn't even exist.

Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "In regard to the tune, we have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original." (quoted from the OED)

Hitchcock borrowed it from a shaggy-dog story where a train passenger is carrying a large odd-shaped package. The passenger calls it a MacGuffin and explains to the curious fellow passengers that it's a device used to catch lions in Scottish Highlands. When they protest that there are no lions in the Highlands, he simply replies, "Well, then this can't be a MacGuffin."

"What disrupts all this is a McGuffin so gnarled and elaborate as to throw the novel out of whack, even as it propels the plot. An insane Japanese student armed with a poisonous powder invades the house convinced that he is in love with Hazel."
Richard Eder; The Day After a Night of Happiness; The New York Times; Mar 16, 1999.

"I'm saying that they can't be this bad. I'm saying there's something underfoot here, something calculated; a charade, a clever ruse, a MacGuffin, if you will."
Tony Kornheiser; This Preseason Is a Plot Device: It's Red Herrings, Not Redskins; The Washington Post; Aug 20, 2003.

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