When I was a kid, I occasionally listened to my father’s LP of Oscar Brand’s Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads. One of the songs on the album was “Sam Hall,” which included this line:
You’re a bunch of muckers all, damn your eyes.
At some point, I asked my father what muckers meant, and he told me that it was an abbreviated form of motherfuckers. It never occurred to me to doubt that until today.
Today, I read an article about James Ivory in the Guardian. The article refers in passing to Ivory’s “old mucker Daniel Day-Lewis.” It seemed clear that that was not the same use of the term mucker that I had previously encountered, so I headed for my shelf of slang dictionaries.
(It recently occurred to me that I have a couple of bookshelves full of language-related reference works—dictionaries, slang dictionaries, translation dictionaries, usage guides, style guides, etc—but that I almost never think to look at any of them these days, because it’s so much more convenient to just do a web search. So I’m trying to remind myself to check my paper reference books more often.)
I quickly found out what the Guardian article meant: according to the 8th edition of Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (henceforth DSUE8), mucker can mean “friend,” a meaning that apparently originated in the military around 1917. (Oddly, the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which seems to be at least partly based on DSUE8, dates this use of the term to 1947. Not sure why the difference.) (Also oddly, Beale’s Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which purports to be essentially an abridged version of DSUE8, includes etymological speculation that I haven’t seen elsewhere, to the effect that the term may have been influenced by German Macker and Dutch makker, both meaning “pal.”)
But that left me wondering about the pejorative use in the song. New Partridge also gives a US definition: “a person who uses sleight-of-hand to cheat at cards.” But that didn’t seem likely to be what the song meant. Chapman’s American Slang says “A crude and unreliable man; lout,” which it dates to the late 1800s; it claims that the origin is a German term meaning “sanctimonious bigot,” which seems like it could account for the line in the song.
But nowhere could I find a definition that matched what my father had said. In desperation, I turned to Urban Dictionary, but (as is often the case), it left me no wiser, although one not-very-high-voted entry did claim (without supporting evidence) that the term was used in the San Francisco Bay Area as a shortening of motherfucker. So I started searching for information about the song, which led me in short order to a Digital Tradition thread, which as usual proved informative and useful.
And comments there and elsewhere eventually led me to conclude that muckers in the song was probably just a euphemism for fuckers. Which I might have concluded sooner had I looked sooner at DSUE8’s entry for muck!, mucker, mucking (separate from the mucker entry I had originally found), which says that such terms “have from ca. 1915 represented fuck! etc.”
(Digital Tradition comments also suggest that the original version of the song, performed in British music halls around 1850 but not written down verbatim in contemporary publications, may not have contained any swear words, euphemized or otherwise; apparently what shocked people about it was its blasphemy.)
So I think that (despite the intriguing quasi-support from that one Urban Dictionary entry) my father’s answer was wrong; I’m guessing that he had just assumed that was what the word meant. Which is kind of funny given that most of the time when I asked him what a word meant, he told me to go look it up, which is part of what sparked my lifelong habit of looking stuff up.
Back to the song: It turns out that the song was based in part on the real-life execution of a thief named Jack Hall in 1707. The Newgate Calendar included an entry for Jack Hall, which provides a bunch of terms for various approaches to thievery. For example, filing a cly was “picking pockets of watches, money, books or handkerchiefs”; and the running smobble involves one person grabbing stuff in a store and running off with it while their accomplice “flings handfuls of dirt and nastiness” at the shopkeeper. I suppose that if dirt and nastiness constitute muck, then the accomplice in the running smobble could be deemed a mucker, but I’m sure that’s not what the song meant.
I’ll close by mentioning that that Jack Hall entry is notable also for two more phrases that amused me: a mention of a “bale full of iniquity” (which I keep trying to read as having something to do with the unrelated term baleful; turns out bale is a homomorph); and the statement that a practitioner of the “whalebone lay” would steal some money from a shopkeeper and then, “to give no mistrust, they buy some small matter, and pay the man with a pig of his own sow.” I hadn’t previously encountered “pig of his own sow,” but the meaning seems immediately clear; I like it.