Oh, you’ve known one of those lucky ducks who have it made in the shade – a whale of a guy, a mogul, a big kahuna with lots of moola, so stuck up, so high and mighty he leaves you muttering – or singing with Billy Joel,
All the servants in your new hotel
Throw their roses at your feet, ohh
Fool them all, but baby I can tell
You’re no stranger to the street
Yes, the nose may be high in the air, but the feet are still stuck in the muck. And we all know anyway, don’t we, that what goes on at those upper levels is a dirty business – mucking around with all sorts of dark and desperate things.
Well, we may call such a person a high muck-a-muck (or even, by further alteration and with a more muttering sound, a high muckety-muck), but what really counts is not his dirty shoes but his full belly… at least in the origins of the phrase.
High muck-a-muck, you see, may have been attracted to some relevant-feeling English words (with that nice contrast, too, between the lofty and the… well, in fact, muck referred first to dung, and is also cognate way back there with mucus), but it comes from Chinook (west coast) jargon hayo makamak, “plenty food.” That, in turn, comes from Nootka words for “ten” and for the part of the whale meat between the blubber and the flesh.
Some days you eat the whale… some days you are the whale.