'Mugwump', 'Crooked Hillary', and Other Memorable Political Insults

Tom Porter

With the U.K. general election only six weeks away, rhetoric is becoming heated and insults are flying.

In a column in British tabloid The Sun, the U.K.’s foreign minister Boris Johnson referred to opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn as a “mutton-headed old mugwump.”

The term has led to much head scratching, with many reaching for their dictionaries to find out what the word “mugwump” means.

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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word originated in the U.S. referring to “ a bolter from the Republican party in 1884.” Its explanation of the word’s etymology says mugwump is derived from a Massachusetts Native American term for “war leader” and was jokingly used to refer to someone who was the “head guy.”

It continues: “The first political mugwumps were Republicans in the presidential race of 1884 who chose to support Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland rather than their own party’s nominee. Their independence prompted one 1930s humorist to define mugwump as ‘a bird who sits with its mug on one side of the fence and its wump on the other’.”

The term has come to mean someone “ aloof or independent, especially from party politics,” with Johnson echoing critics who think Corbyn is reluctant to dirty himself in the battles of Westminster politics.

Throughout history, many politicians have abandoned the veneer of respect, and resorted to insults to belittle their opponents and highlight their wit.

Newsweek reviews some of the most memorable political quips.

Winston Churchill

“He is a modest man with much to be modest about,” is how the British prime minister is said to have described Clement Attlee, who succeeded Churchill as prime minister in 1945 after a surprise general election win.

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Attlee cut an unassuming figure alongside the flamboyant wartime leader, and was a frequent target of Churchill’s barbs—he was also described as a “sheep in sheep’s clothing” by his Tory rival.

Some historians believe that Churchill badly underestimated Attlee, whose government is regarded as one of the most influential in post-war British history, and introduced much of the modern welfare state.

Thomas Jefferson

The Founding Fathers were not exactly models of civility when describing their political rivals.

"Hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman," wrote Thomas Jefferson’s camp, referring to his rival John Adams in the 1800 presidential election. Adams’ son and future president John Quincy Adams later described Jefferson in his diary as, "A slur upon the moral government of the world.”

Winston Churchill: Queen Elizabeth II

Wikimedia Commons

Bob Dole

The Republican senator is known for his wit, particularly when delivering barbed remarks at the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner. At the 1996 roast he scored a hat-trick of insults describing a gathering former presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon: “History buffs probably noted the reunion at a Washington party a few weeks ago of three ex-presidents: Carter, Ford, and Nixon—see no evil, hear no evil, and evil.”

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Ken Livingstone

Former Conservative British Prime Margaret Thatcher certainly divided opinion, but ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone, an in-again out-again member of the Labour Party, believed that the former prime minister lived up to her fearsome reputation. “I’ve met serial killers and assassins, but nobody scared me as much as Mrs Thatcher,” he remarked about his frequent political sparring partner.

Boris Johnson

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on April 18. Baffling many, Johnson called British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn a "mugwump." Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Theodore Roosevelt

The Republican president was fond of backbone-related quips, remarking of President William McKinley’s lack of scruples, “He [McKinley] has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”

He made the remark in 1888, when hawks, including Roosevelt, were clamoring for war with Spain, which they blamed for the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor (it later transpired the explosion was probably caused by a mechanical failure.)

Civil War veteran McKinley initially resisted pressure to go to war, declaring “I have seen the dead piled up, I do not want to see another,” before eventually relenting and asking Congress for authorization.

"I could carve out of a banana a justice with more backbone than that," Roosevelt also said of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., after the conservative judge voted to oppose the president in major railroad trust-busting case in 1904.

Donald Trump

Trump’s presidential campaign rhetoric was characterized by insults that pushed the boundaries of acceptability further than any previous candidate.

On the campaign trail he taunted opponents with nicknames, on Twitter and at rallies. Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton was dubbed “Lying Hillary” and “Crooked Hillary” while Republican rivals for the Republican nomination Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz were “Low-energy Jeb,” “Lying Ted Cruz.”  He also lambasted critics, insinuating that the mother of a deceased Muslim Gold Star U.S. soldier had not been allowed to speak at the Democrat convention by her husband, and mocking a disabled reporter who had questioned a Trump campaign claim.

Trump’s rhetoric was in turn described as “extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America” by no other than former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

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