Big Mahoff

Dear Word Detective: So okay, I lived a few years in Philly, I’ve moved on. But I always called what is otherwise a “big shot” a “big mahoff.” My grown daughter tried to research this when she got blank stares after using it around friends, and it seems to be a totally local expression. I tried to verify this tonight (rather than going back to work), and she seems to be right. Most of the citations are by Philadelphians, about Philadelphians or in Philadelphia publications. Whaddayathink, is this really just a Philadelphianism? — Diane Yaghoobian.

Could be. Maybe it refers to the guy who invented the cheesesteak, a.k.a. the Coronary Event on a Bun.

There must be something going on in Pennsylvania. The two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are both famous in linguistics circles for their idiosyncratic slang, terms often heard nowhere else on the planet. Natives of Pittsburgh, for instance, apparently call baloney sandwich meat “jumbo.” Put that baloney on a long roll with lettuce, tomato, etc., and you have what much of the rest of the US calls a “submarine sandwich” (or just a “sub”), but is known in Philadelphia (and southern New Jersey, to be fair) as a “hoagie.” Philadelphians also apparently call the sidewalk “the pavement.” Can you say “lost colony of space aliens”? I knew you could.

Now that I’ve ensured myself lots of mail from hoagieland, on to “mahoff.” As you’ve discovered, 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.

37 comments on this post.
  1. Vicky:

    I heard something like this as a kid, only it was “big mehab”. I think it comes from “mahiip” which is, I believe, the word for “king” in one or another Hindu dialect. Maybe in Kipling?

  2. RolyMole:

    What’s wrong with “pavement” for sidewalk? it’s been in common British usage for decades.

  3. Stephen Goldstein:

    I have been searching for the origin of the big mahoff for ages to no avail.

    Every Philadelphia native knows it, but few outside the city do.

    As a city known for political and group braggadocio (whether valid or not), having its own term for a person that epitomizes his representation makes perfect sense.

    It has a wonderful air about it, much better than big shot or top dog. Of course, I may be biased…

  4. Dr. Dan Chandler:

    Lived in Philly all my life till moving to South Carolina to teach at a small college. Big Mahoff is a Philly term all the way…Real Philly cheesesteaks do not chop up the meat and cheese into an unrecognizable heap of goo- the meat stays in one piece- and we never go “to the beach” we go “Down the Shore.”

  5. Brian Mahoff:

    Id like to know what thats all about. My last name is Mahoff.

  6. Alix:

    OMG…this word is not known around the world? New to ME ! :)

    from Haverford, PA (you know, just outside PH)

  7. frankie d.:

    so then there’s “center city”.
    someone thought i was tawking about an actual city named center.
    go figure.

    how about “youz”? for “you all” or you with someone else or just one “you”.

    how about “the blue route”? an actual numbered highway!

    my dad was a big mahoff: my definition?
    it’s a guy or a woman who thinks they’re a ‘big shot’ but is actually a mean, mistrusted, misunderstood fool.

    that’s my take on that “wacky” city of brotherly love!

  8. Chris:

    I’m from the Allentown Pa area and my dad was a UAW worker at Mack trucks for many years….He usually used the term in a derogatory way….As if someone thinks they are more important than they are. Or maybe he’d just say it that way….” He thinks he’s the Big Mahoff”……I always thought it was funny and he’d laugh when I said it when I was in grade school….And pavement for sidewalk and hoagies for subs are stillthe way I think of them.

  9. BRUCE L:

    It’s mahoff in Philly for sure. My In-laws in Pittsburgh know the word as Macher…..say they both derive from German roots or maybe Yiddish! Both cases its the big cheese! And we ate a hoagie while sittin on the pavement before we left the shore to come home, we were shoobies!

  10. Daria:

    Since when are hoagies made from baloney? GEEZ! Get your facts straight.

  11. Maria Leonard:

    The proper pronunciation of pavement in Philly is payment. We go to the denis for our teeth, play the pieano in the pallor and say zinc for sink. We never name our boys Otto because we can say it…..comes out Oddo. And yes we never go to the beach until we are down da shore where the ‘lantic Ocean is.

  12. Charles Fineberg:

    Is this Big Macher – transit from Yiddish to something altogether unique? The meaning seems to be the same…

  13. Ed:

    I grew up in New York/Brooklyn where that term was used. So its not just a Philly term.

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  17. Teresa:

    Used that term this morning to a bunch of blank stares. I am surprised it is so localized. I surely thought it was more common. And, Hoagies were originally ITALIAN lunch meat.

    =]

  18. Mort T:

    Michael Smerconish of The Big Talker 1210 AM uses it all the time. He maintains that it is a Philly-only term.

  19. Jay:

    I grew up in New Jersey. My mother, born in Brooklyn, used it all the time. Even if its origins are Philadelphian, it has definitely spread.

  20. Kevin:

    I believe the title “big mahoff” is actually a corruption of the concept of the “big mahout” or sometimes corrupted as “big mahoof”. The “big mahout” is the name given to the driver of a war elephant. The “big mahout” sits atop the elephant and is assisted with a 2-3 soldier ground crew. The “big mahout” by virtue of his perch can see farther and wider than the soldiers on the ground and that gave the commanders better intel on how the battle space was shaping up. The “big mahout” was, as Vice President Joe Biden might say, “a big f–king deal”. It comes from the Hindi language.

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  22. Steven Capsuto:

    Wow, it never occurred to me that this might be a localism. I’m a Philly native and have used this expression most of my life. In fact, was about to use it in a text for publication (which I guess I won’t do now that I know it’s not widely understood).

    Oh well… I suppose I’ll have to put “the big cheese” (mmmmm…. cheese…. cheesesteaks…..).

    And yes, “macher” (in this sense) comes from Yiddish!

  23. Michael J.:

    Baloney is put on Zeps in Norristown, a local and cheaper sandwhich most likely from the 1930′s. My “Dear Old Mom” talked about them.

  24. Jim Callahan:

    If ‘mahoff” has a Hindi origin involving elephants, it may have something to do with the Philadelphia A’s baseball team. The mascot of the A’s was an elephant, and the A’s were the more popular baseball team in Philly in the early decades of the 20th Century over the Phillies.

  25. Mike S.:

    Baloney is NEVER EVER put on a Zep made in Norristown!
    Your dear old mom must not have had a real Zep.

    A Norristown, PA Zep is cooked salami, provolone cheese, tomatoe, onion, salt, pepper and oregano, and maybe hot peppers, that’s it… NO lettuce, nothing else.

  26. Lou Forgione:

    Growing up in South Philly in the 40′s and 50′s we would call the sewer the coal bin, the side walk was called the “payment”, and when we went to the Jersey Shore we described it as going “downashore”, and last but not least we called famous people “Big Mahoffs”. Where that Mahoff word came from I’ll never know. The funniest thing was after playing outside all day we would come in the house to cool off by eating watermelon and drink iced tea and the “Big Mahoffs” had window fans and I’ll never forget when we finally had one in our house. It was like fresh air from heaven. Oh those were the days my friend. Who can forget the men selling bleach from their horse and wagons along with the iceman, the milk man, the dry cleaner man, the insurance man, the knife and sciccors sharepening man and almost forgot the umbrella man and egg man. The real treat in the 40′s and 50′s was the waffle man with his hot ice to keep the vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream ice cold along with his gas burner to make the waffles and serve waffles and ice cream sandwiches……mmmmmmmmmm good! Another goodie was going to the Acame (acme) which is still referred to that to this day.

  27. doranb:

    In James Michener’s 1982 novel “Space” one of the characters says his father is “a mahoof at NASA.” Note the spelling, two o’s and one f. From the context it’s clear he means something like “bigwig.”

  28. Ross L:

    James is or was a Phila area guy at some point. There is a hometown museum honoring him less than an hour away. Same thing with Pearl S Buck but she never used the term.

  29. Lee Adler:

    Do you know why day trippers down the shore were called shoobies? It’s because back in the old days they brought their lunch in a shoebox. I know this because when I was a kid I worked at the 9th Street parking lot in Ocean City in 1967, and there was a clam and oyster bar there called the Shoobie Shack, and I asked old Westy, the owner of the lot, who was near 90 at the time, why they called it that, and he told me the story. Had to be true. He was a local from way, way, way back.

    Really sad about Mack and Mancos, though. The name may change, but everybody will still call it Mack and Mancos. Sort of like East River Drive and Wissahickon Drive, and Delaware Avenue.

    “Columbus Blvd?”

    Please.

    And then there’s Moyamensing Avenue. Who here can tell us what that means?

  30. Jeff Shear:

    Yo! And how is it we pronounce Coca-Cola? I think you would be spelled Coewka-Cowela

  31. pj:

    I’m a Philly native and I was working in Bergen County, NJ years ago and used Big mahoff once and got blank stares from the half dozen people I was talking to-they never heard the term.
    I later used the word “jeff” to describe my hat and got blank stares again-they never heard that either.
    Does anybody know where “jeff” used for a hat came from and this too appears to be a Phillyism.

  32. Jimmy Day:

    As a kid I heard the term the great Mahoff from a friend of the family he was a WW 2 veteran he was from the hills of KY. and he told me the great Mahoff was a rich french man who spent all his money partying and having fun so i guess we would have to ask some older french people if that is true LOL. I can here my Friend Herbert C. Tucker even now that he has passed on Drunk saying I Am the great MAHOFF Boy LOL>>>

  33. Howard J. Wilk:

    You mentioned that in Philadelphia (and until recently I thought everywhere) “pavement” means simply “sidewalk”. But my daughter took the Pennsylvania driving license written test on which there was a question something about “when is it permissible to drive on the pavement?” She answered “never”, but it was marked wrong, because apparently the prevailing definition in most of the state of “pavement” is “something that is paved”, which includes the street.

  34. Marge O'Connor:

    Moyamensing is a Lenni Lenape word for bird droppings.

  35. Bill Noble:

    My dad came from upstate PA and moved to philadelphia after WWII. I was born and raised in NE PHILLY. Still live there. He used BIG MAHOFF all the time. He told me when I was younger that in India they had no construction equipment, so they used elephants to move stuff. So the guy who drove the elephant on top was the BIG MAHOFF and everybody working on that elephant crew had to listen to the BIG MAHOFF. He was the boss.

  36. Grandma:

    I’m from South Philly the term ‘jeff’ was used for a cap style that had a small narrow bill like the one the cartoon character wore. I wrote a post to another website and used mahoff and no one had ever heard it. To make sure I was spelling it right,I googled the word. So glad I came across this site. I did not know pavement was strictly Philly speak. Just like I’ve always said ‘ceeement’ not ‘sament’ for cement. My pronunciation is supposed to be endemic to certain areas of Philly.

  37. Aryeh Wood:

    My father used the word “mahoff” to refer to those who thought they were big deals. More specifically, to the bosses. I thought it might come from some Yiddish or German corruption the “hoff” part referring to high or the court (of the Prince) and the “m-” sound being the Hebrew/Yiddish prefix meaning “from”. Thus the phrase means, “from on high”, with the connotations of snobbery or self-importance. My father, of course, was from Philadelphia.

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