linguistics and lexicography Love English

Guess who they got to write this blog post? Muggins!

© ImageSourceWe all know the list of English personal pronounsI/me, you, he/him, she/her, it, we/us, they/them – but there’s one word that interests me because it seems to have the function of a personal pronoun but has very specific connotations. That word is muggins, which is defined in the Macmillan Dictionary as “used for referring to yourself when you feel that you have allowed people to treat you in an unfair way”. It is typically used, wryly or bitterly, in contexts where one person finds themselves doing a task, especially an unpleasant task, because others get them to do it or duck out of doing it themselves. Here are some examples:

The first drive was to be done from Redditch to Knebworth with no support vehicle and muggins was to drive it.
Ian has other priorities; Thom couldn’t organize his way out of a paper bag and isn’t keen anyway; so here is muggins doing all the work.

As you can see, although muggins has the function of a first person singular pronoun in these examples, it has third person verb agreement. This way of referring to yourself has a distancing effect – it’s as if you are standing back and realising that you are being put upon, even as you are allowing people to treat you unfairly or actually volunteering to take on some task. Interestingly, muggins often occurs with here after it. Here is often used when talking about someone who is with you, as in “David here is an expert on computers”, so the effect is that you are talking about yourself as if you were another person.

One of the sight screens fell over, and muggins here went to try and fix it.

Muggins is also used with the, a or another determiner, not necessarily to refer to yourself, in sentences such as “I’m the muggins who has to arrange everything.” or “Let’s find some other muggins to do it.”

The word muggins apparently first occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, and probably came, for some obscure reason, from the surname Muggins, influenced by one of the meanings of mug – “a stupid person or a person who is easily fooled”. It is British, which sets me wondering how the same idea is expressed in other varieties of English. There are phrases and rhetorical questions that, sometimes at least, have a similar meaning and general flavour:

I’m the one who does all the housework.
Guess who had to clean up the mess?

What other ways, apart from I (or, if you’re a king or queen, we), are there of referring exclusively to yourself? There is the phrase yours truly, which, like muggins, is informal but, unlike muggins, does not have any special connotations:

… a magnificent sports facility which yours truly is far too old to make use of.

The formal pronoun one, though more often used to make a statement about people in general, is clearly sometimes just used to talk about your own feelings, behaviour, etc.:

One felt that the film was too short for its subject matter.

So, even a simple, basic English word like I has near-synonyms with different registers or connotations.

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Elizabeth Manning

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