What is a “mahoff,” big or otherwise, and is that only a Philly term?

    The big “mahoff” – it’s a big mystery. But if you grew up in Philadelphia, you probably know what a “mahoff” is.

    If you grew up in Philadelphia, you probably know what a “mahoff” is.

    And you probably know the term goes together with the adjective “big” the way Campbell’s tomato soup goes together with a grilled cheese sandwich.

    If you didn’t grow up around here, the term “big mahoff” probably elicits a big “huh?”

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    Life is full of big mahoffs, even if you didn’t know it. They’re the ones with the power, the perks and the egos to match, the ones who run the show.

    Less flavorful locales might call them the “powers that be.” Weary underlings in offices in other cities might call them “the big cheeses” or the “the big shots.”

    But within shouting distance of the Schuylkill and the Delaware, such august beings are often as not known as “the mahoffs” or the “big mahoffs.”

    As in: “The mahoffs upstairs want this project done by next week.” Or: “The big mahoffs over at DRPA thought that tram across the river would be a good idea.”

    But only, apparently, in those narrow environs. The term, it seems, is unique to our town.

    Or so believes Evan Morris, AKA The Word Detective.

    Here’s part of his entry on “mahoff” from his Web site:

    “This is evidently a seriously obscure term outside of Philadelphia. It’s not defined in any major dictionary, it’s not listed in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), and it’s not even in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the gold standard of glossaries of weird local terms. Fortunately, Grant Barrett, a lexicographer at Oxford University Press, project editor of HDAS and proprietor of the Double-Tongued Word Wrester Dictionary website (www.doubletongued.org) did a write-up on “mahoff” in January 2005. He found print citations dating back to 1951, all using “mahoff” or “big mahoff” in the sense of “big cheese” or “important person.” Grant later contributed to a discussion of “mahoff” at Dave Wilton’s wordorigins.org site in which various origins from Irish to Russian were discussed, but no conclusion was reached. So, for the moment at least, “mahoff” remains a mystery.”

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