This week’s interesting word is probably familiar to film fans, but you can find a McGuffin in all sorts of narrative works.
A McGuffin (or MacGuffin) is an object, device or event that has only one true purpose: to set the plot in motion. The audience is usually initially told that the object or thing is extremely important, but the McGuffin does not often have any real importance as the plot develops. The McGuffin is the soon-to-be-stolen diamond or the missing USB drive that serves to start and drive the story.
The precise definition of a McGuffin is widely debated, but the origin is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock. The OED gives the first recorded usage as in 1939:
“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, Lecture at Columbia University
Hitchcock suggests he took the surname MacGuffin from a humorous story involving a McGuffin-type incident. The choice of name is not thought to be related to the word guffin, meaning ‘a stupid or clumsy person’.
- The Oxford English Dictionary Online