I used the verb maffick (OED: “To celebrate uproariously, rejoice extravagantly”) last night, and my wife asked where it was from. I said “That’s one of my favorite etymologies,” and when I told her she agreed it was pretty damn good. So I’m sharing it with you, in case you don’t already know it.

The Boer War ended with the absorption of the independent Boer republics into the British Empire, but it began with the British on the receiving end of a terrible shock: their invincible troops were unable to prevent the insurgent Boers from invading Cape Colony and Natal Colony in late 1899 and successfully besieging the towns of Mafeking (now Mafikeng) and Kimberley. Food became very scarce, and attempted relief expeditions were wiped out in a series of terrible British defeats. It wasn’t until May 17 of the following year that Mafeking (defended, incidentally, by troops under the command of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell—yes, the same Baden-Powell, pronounced BAY-d’n POE-‘l, who later founded the Boy Scouts) was successfully relieved, and when the news reached London the next evening the city erupted in wild celebration which went on for days. The similarity in sound between the name of the town and an English present participle was irresistible, and soon the celebration was called “mafficking” (the first citation in the OED is from the Pall Mall Gazette of 21 May: “We trust Cape Town.. will ‘maffick’ to-day, if we may coin a word, as we at home did on Friday and Saturday”). The earlier edition of the OED said “The words appear to be confined to journalistic use,” but they’ve withdrawn that statement in the March 2000 draft revision of the entry, and with good reason: the word is so much fun that people have kept using it long after the siege has faded into the farther reaches of historical memory.


  1. If you’re wondering how 1900 Londoners “erupted into wild celebration”, according to contemporary reports they actually tickled fellow maffickers with feathers.
    I’m sure I read this years ago in one of Ivor Brown’s word books, which I’m sorry I can’t find now to confirm.

  2. A wonderful word, can’t think how I have managed to live without it. Well, I have a question. I’ve always pronounced Baden Bayden, but I did not know that was the correct pronunciation of Powell. Does this mean that the name of the great Brazilian guitarist, Baden-Powell, is also pronounced BAYden-POel? He was named after the founder of the Boy Scouts (his father was a great admirer), but I have the vague feeling that on live albums I have heard him introduced as BAYden-POWell (pow rhyming with how).

  3. (clarification: when I say ‘I did not know that was the correct pronunciation of Powell,’ ‘that’ refers back to the pronunciation described in the post, not to anything in the previous clause)

  4. À propos, the relief of Mafeking led to linguistic riots in Jersey between English-speakers and French-speakers. Gangs of Anglophones, suspecting the Francophones of pro-Boer sympathies, attacked properties in St Helier belonging to Francophones. According to the New York Times (yes, the news got that far!) of 26 May 1900: “…troops were forced to charge with fixed bayonets to prevent the demonstrators from invading the French quarter.” A mob gathered outside the home of the Constable of St. Helier, a noted champion of the French language, but he addressed the crowd so eloquently from his balcony that they dispersed peacefully enough. Unfortunately, a bust of the Constable had been erected in one of St Helier’s parks (a misdiagnosis of terminal illness had led to a premature tribute) and the monument was subjected to a succession of indignities over the summer (tarring, paint, donkey…)
    Mafficking has therefore a less good-humoured connotation in Jersey.
    Incidentally, my grandmother had what she called a “Mafeking store” or “Mafeking cupboard”, a stock of tins and cans of food in case of emergency. Does anyone else know this expression?

  5. (and now I see, of course, that LH has in fact represented the pronunciation as BAY-d’n POE-‘l, and that corruption set in within the space of a single comment… it’s 11.54 am. I expect to be fully conscious in another 4 hours or so.)

  6. “POE’L” remained the upper class British pronunciation until quite recently. The novelist Anthony Powell certainly pronounced it so. I suspect it’s on the way out in the present generation.

  7. I suspect it’s on the way out in the present generation.
    Really? American influence, maybe? I mean, “long o” is a perfectly normal pronunciation for -ow- (show, blow, etc.), so it’s hard to see why there would be a natural reaction against it.

  8. The few times I’ve heard of BP I’m almost sure it’s be “pow” not “poe” – and that is certainly the pronunciation I’ve internalised (30, Dane).
    Could the word have survived because it sounds rather like “My <expletive deleted>”?

  9. David Marjanović says

    pronounced BAY-d’n POE-‘l

    I was in the Scouts, and the good man was invariably pronounced with [æ] (or rather [ɛ] as adaptation to German) and [aʊ]. Looks like someone thought English was graphemic more than 85 % of the time.

  10. The relief of Mafeking played a part in the Shirley Temple movie A Little Princess, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, but with several plot elements changed to suit Hollywood. Young Sara (played Temple) pulls her classmates out of bed to announce to them that Mafeking has been relieved; the episode doesn’t occur in the novel, if memory and a bit of Googling serves me.

  11. It was always alleged that it should be pronounced as in Bathing Towel. Only spoilsports could object.

  12. margaret stonyk says

    I met “maffick” in the short story “Reginald’s Peace Poem, in H.H. Munro’s 1904 collection. “I don’t pretend to have gone on very original lines; … it gallops along so nicely.”
    “Mother, may I go and maffick,
    Tear around and hinder traffic?”
    I’d assumed it was Saki’s own impertinent creation; but evidently not.
    I remember a radio interview with Lady Baden-Powell, many decades ago, in which she was quite firm about the Po-el pronunciation.

  13. I can only think of Reginald’s Peace Poem when I see this word.

  14. From which the couplet margaret quotes comes.
    “Of course you’ll say there would be no traffic worth bothering about on the bare and sun-scorched veldt, but there’s no other word that rhymes with maffick.”

  15. In Oz almost everyone pronounces that name /POW-ell/; but I remember my grandfather gravely confiding to me that it ought to be /POE-ell/. I am reminded of Cowper: /oo/ or /ow/, folks? Most use /ow/ if they ever mention Cowper’s glands. (Quite properly, of course, these are rarely mentioned in polite society.)
    The truly burning question, though, is this: How do people pronounce wort, especially as it occurs in St John’s wort, which is much spoken of? Here in Australia it is hard to find anyone who pronounces it /wö[r]t/ (as it wö[r]), to accord with word, work, worm, and the rest. Why is this?
    (O yes… stay on topic. Um, what was the topic…?)

  16. I use the vowel of word, work, etc., but I just asked my wife, and she says it identically to wart. I have no idea which is more prevalent in these United States.
    Topic? We don’t need no stinking topic!

  17. Topic: a pre-postmodern bourgeois affectation, modulo relevance.
    Strange how a less familiar word starting with wor- should not be pronounced /wö[r]-/ when it makes a vernacular début. After all, people automatically pronounce unfamiliar words starting with w[h]a- with some sort of a /wo-/. I mean, as in war, walk, warn, wasp, wad, what, wharf, and just about every other case except in onomatopoeia, and when /ei/ is represented. In much Australian English this even extends to pronouncing the first two occurrences of a in Guantanamo (always spelt here without á) as /o/: /gwon-TON-ɘ-moe/ (modulo lazy irregular representations of vowels). Just because a /w/ sound is in the vicinity, I suggest.

  18. but I remember my grandfather gravely confiding to me that it ought to be /POE-ell/
    So could the French radio be right when they pronounce “Colline Peau-Ouelle” while talking of Condolentia Reich’s predecessor?

  19. Ah, DiSigmatikos weighs in. Ouelquome (if I may arrogate to myself the right to issue une telle bienvenue chez Chapeau).
    Colline Peau-Ouelle? Better than Queue-lion Poêle, I warrant, though both are torturous and extraordinary renditions. But enough of politics, ouais?
    The American pronunciation of his forename, Colin, occasions some hilarity down this way. We cannot help hearing /KŌL-in/ as colon. But enough critique of American neo-colonial oleo-hege-monetics, hmm?

  20. I once heard a discussion on the radio about the pronunciation of Colin Powell’s first name. The tendency of (American) announcers was to say COLL-in, as in British English, but Powell was said to have pointed out that he was from the West Indies where the pronunciation is KO-lin.
    In France, it seems that announcers are left to themselves about how to pronounce English names. There seems to be an assumption that anyone who took some English in school must be competent in it. (At least that is the impression I get from listening to French radio – the reverse is true on English Canadian radio).

  21. O yes, Marie-Lucie. I now recall that there was discussion of the pronunciation of Colin when Powell burst on the scene. I suppose I wrongly identified the pronunciation of his name as typically American.

  22. The first name Colin is not at all common in the US, or even in Canada (except for recent British immigrants), which is why there is no typically American pronunciation for this name, which is assumed to be British.
    A name that is common in Canada though not in the US is Ian, apparently the Scottish version of John. I read somewhere that a Canadian boy called Ian whose family had moved to New York City was made fun of by the other boys in the school, who thought he had a female name: Ann – such was the local pronunciation of Ann in (at least that part of) NYC.

  23. brian johnstone says

    It will probably not surprise anyone that the word entered usage in Australia too. I found my way here (what a brilliant post and string of comments btw) in context of research on the crowds, etc in Australia during early August 1914 which the Bulletin described as ‘the Mafficking Habit’. See, in unlikely event this is of interest, Bulletin, 1 October, p. 6 and again 17 December 1914, p. 22.

  24. Of course it’s of interest! Thanks for the kind words and the information.

Speak Your Mind