Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Miss Froy and the OED

I'm recommending that you do three things, preferably in this order.
1. If you're unfortunate enough to never have seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), do so at your earliest convenience. If you don't have any convenience, see it at your earliest inconvenience. You'll thank me later. (It's my favorite movie!) (Don't worry, it isn't scary.)
2. Do you subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the day? If not, why not?
3. Read the rest of this post.
I now realize that I've quoted shamelessly from the OED in the past, and I may not have met the legal requirements for doing so, in which case I apologize. I'm not going to just copy and paste the whole thing this time. And all quotes from the OED in this post are Copyright © Oxford University Press 2011.

Today's word of the day is McGuffin, also spelled MacGuffin, Maguffin, and maguffin. Although OED uses McGuffin as its main entry, I'll be using MacGuffin because that's the spelling in the two exemplary quotations that I think are most authoritative. The OED defines MacGuffin as an item in a film or other narrative fiction that is "initially presented as being of great significance to the story, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops."

It's hard to define words; if I were a lexicographer in the definitions department in the digital age, the definitions would mostly be videos of me waving my arms around and saying, "Well, you see, a MacGuffin is when, like, for example, you've got your...." So it's without any claim of superiority that I say I think this definition is flawed.

Let's talk about The Lady Vanishes. I'm not going to ask if you enjoyed it, since if you didn't, I don't want to know that about you. If you haven't seen it yet (yet! understand?), what follows won't spoil it, because it involves MacGuffins (the word is usually associated with Hitchcock), and we don't really care about them. Many, including Hitchcock, believe that The Lady Vanishes has the best MacGuffin of them all: the tune sung by the local minstrel near the beginning of the film. But this tune isn't "initially presented as being of great significance"; we don't realize it's important until near the end. On the other hand, this may be the exception that proves the rule (I use the cliché intentionally; "proves" here means "tests," not "proves" in its usual modern sense). Maybe it's such a great MacGuffin because it we don't realize it's a MacGuffin until the end--it violates the norm of MacGuffins. It's a meta-MacGuffin. In hindsight, the audience identifies the MacGuffin. We realize that until the importance of the tune becomes clear, we had thought of Miss Froy (the lady who vanishes, played by Dame May Whitty) as the MacGuffin. Of course, she doesn't make a very good MacGuffin--she is lovable and eccentric, so we actually do care whether she turns up.

In one of the OED's illustrative quotations, Hitchcock says,
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. (Alfred Hitchcock, Lect. at Univ. Columbia 30 Mar. 1939 [typescript, N.Y. Mus. Mod. Art: Dept. Film & Video])
Indeed. Given that he mentions "the tune" and that the lecture was the year after the release of The Lady Vanishes, I conjecture that this is what he's referring to.

Anyhow, never mind. Just thinking out loud. I mean, I guess the point is that definitions are hard to do, and I love The Lady Vanishes, and I write about the OED a lot in this blog, and the word of the day was MacGuffin. [flapping arms uncontrollably]


Fallacist said...

In an interview somewhere (maybe the Truffaut one), Hitchcock said that the MacGuffin is what the spies care about (such as the submarine plans) but the audience doesn't. It's not that the MacGuffin is unimportant to the story, it's that the audience doesn't care what it is. Also, I don't think that a person could be the MacGuffin. He also often told an amusing anecdote that explained the origin of the word.

ruthbiz@yahoo.com said...

Maybe more Chekhov's gun than McGuffin.

I've never understood the aphorism about the exception that proves the rule, but if by 'proves' we mean 'test', as with yeast, it all makes sense.
Happy New Year, cuz.

Mike Koplow said...

Fallacist: That's right. I think that's why the OED's definition mentions narrative fiction--it is important to the story because it keeps the narrative going. You're right that the audience doesn't care what it is. The tune in The Lady Vanishes carries it to a higher level because the audience not only doesn't care what it is, it doesn't even know that it doesn't care, because who in the world was paying attention to the tune.

I don't know if a person is disqualified from being a MacGuffin. In the specific case of Miss Froy, she has the MacGuffinesque trait of being what the good guys are looking for, but she's disqualified because we care about her very much.

Mike Koplow said...

Cuz Ruth: I'm embarrassed to say I don't get the allusions to Chekhov's gun and yeast.

But yep, "prove" used to mean "test," and we've still got vestiges of it in "proving grounds" and "the proof of the pudding is in the chowing thereof."

Happy new year 2 U 2.