Monday, January 14, 2008

Muddying the Waters

Nancy and Gifford Torbenson of South Bend, Indiana, ask whether the saying “your name is mud” is connected with Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilke Booth’s broken leg after Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. That’s a story that’s been going around for a while.

The thing to notice immediately is that the concept existed before Dr. Mudd was convicted of conspiracy. In other words, the saying did not arise from his predicament. Some would argue that his name intensified the cliché, but that’s not something that can be proved. Mud is not Mudd.

Aside from its literal meaning, mud has been used figuratively since 1563 to represent something regarded as base, worthless, or polluting. It later developed the meaning of dregs--the lowest or worse part of something. By the 19th century, it also signified a dolt, an idiot.

Jon Bee, nom de plume of author John Badcock, defined the epithet this way in his 1823 Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase: “Mud, a stupid twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration, or of a leader in the Courier.”

Today, if your name is mud, you are discredited and in disgrace. Your name has been dragged through the mud and you are the victim of merciless mudslingers. Dirty work, this.

SIDEBAR: Muddy Waters

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