meaning and origin of ‘Pooh-Bah’

 

Pooh-Bah - Pall Mall Gazette - 16 March 1885

The Tremendous Swell and the Three Little Maidens.
Pooh-Bah, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Peep-Bo.

from The Pall-Mall Gazette (London) – 16th March 1885

 

 

The noun Pooh-Bah, or pooh-bah, denotes a pompous self-important official holding several offices and fulfilling none of them. It is from the name of a character in The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu, an operetta by the English playwright William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and the English composer Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900). This operetta was first performed on 14th March 1885 at the Savoy Theatre in London; the following, from the review published in The Observer (London) the following day, describes the character:

The appearance of Mr. Grossmith as the Lord High Executioner, with a sword as tall as himself, is quite irresistible. A still more striking figure is that of Pooh-Bah, a stolid, haughty peer of long descent, who feels it his duty to mortify his family pride by serving under the ex-tailor as First Lord of the Treasury, as Lord Chamberlain, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and as half-a-dozen other high functionaries of State. Pooh-Bah is endowed by Mr. Barrington with individuality more distinct than any of his quaint companions; and the sullen dignity with which in his several capacities he periodically consents to be bribed is as droll as anything in the piece.

The name was swiftly used in its current sense since, as early as 14th August 1885, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) had:

If Chief Justice Mike McGrath makes a success of his new combination and continues to draw a salary from the State for doing nothing, while adding an exiguous stipend as can-[several illegible words]eged newspaper, we may expect [several illegible words] generally adopted, to the great improvement of McGrath’s next Directory of Missouri, which might contain such entries as the following:
“John S. Marmaduke, Governor of the State and Universal Life Insurance Agent. Policies in all leading companies issued at the Executive Mansion.
“Banton G. Boone, Attorney-General and manager of the Missouri Liver Pad Company. Particularly efficacious against the malarial influences of Southeast Missouri.
“James M. Seibert, Treasurer and General Financial Agent. Loans and investments carefully attended to.
“John Walker, Auditor. Walker’s Lightning Rods are invaluable to every farmer and office-seeker.
“Mike McGrath, Chief Justice, Secretary of State and General Pooh-Bah of Missouri. Subscriptions received at reduced rates.”
Surely the Secretary of State should not be the only official permitted to bring the State Government into contempt and disrepute.

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