“Don’t be a mugu!” exclaims a voice in the background of an advertisement currently on television. For me, the term elicits the picture of a rough drifter, living on the fringes of society, being somewhat of a fool. A closer look, however, reveals some interesting facets of this word, and the reason that South Africans feel insulted by Nigerian fraudsters.
For one, the word is found in at least four different languages in four far-removed parts of the world, but only in South Africa and Nigeria could there be a slight relationship between the origins of the word.
Only with Point Mugu in California, the location of a naval base and popular surfing spot, could the origin of ‘mugu’ be established with some degree of certainty. In this case, it is believed to derive from the Chumash Indian term muwu, meaning 'beach'. It was first mentioned by the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in his journals dating back to 1542.
One of the 75 districts of Nepal in South Asia is named Mugu, where the indigenous Mugalis live. While we could not establish the exact origin of the name there, a search on the Internet tells us that the name Mugu has a web popularity of 4.91 million, a Facebook presence of 38 000 pages and a Google+ presence of 2 720 pages.
In South Africa, the word ‘mugu’ first surfaced during the 1950s as a term used by the ‘ducktales’ of the time to describe a 'useless' or 'square' person. It is fairly widely accepted that its roots are in Afrikaans, and one of the first novels by the celebrated Afrikaans writer Etienne le Roux in 1959 was titled, Die Mugu.
There are two possible explanations offered of how the word was formed. The first is that it comes from the Afrikaans word moeg, meaning 'tired'.
The second, and more likely, is that it comes from the Afrikaans word muggie or ‘midge’ in English – those tiny but highly irritating flying insects attracted to decaying fruit or the faces of batsmen on cricket fields across the world. It is also from ‘midge’ that we get the word ‘midget’ for very short people.
What is particularly interesting, however, is that there is also an English slang word ‘mugu’, which means to surround or to settle upon any object as flies or insects do.
Adding insult to injury
The most common use of the word or term ‘mugu’ hails from Nigeria, where fraudsters use it to describe a fool who falls for a money scam, mostly perpetrated via emails and to which many South Africans have fallen victim. The scam is known as the advance fee, 419, or money cleaning.
The 419 name comes from the section of Nigerian law that covers fraud. It originated during the 1990s as the oil-based economy took a serious dive.It is now the most common email-based crime in the world and has many variants.
In the one best known to South Africans, an email pretends to come from the solicitor, representative of the family of a wealthy, often politically influential Nigerian citizen who is exiled, imprisoned or dead. It tells you there are millions of dollars the family cannot get out of Nigeria themselves, but which can be deposited into a foreign bank account.
The ‘mugu’ is then asked to make his/her bank account available for safekeeping of the millions. In exchange for this ‘service’, he/she will be allowed to keep a percentage of the money smuggled out of Nigeria. Somewhere along the line, the ‘mugu’ will be required to advance a relatively small fee to ‘facilitate’ the process – never to hear from the ‘benefactors’ again.
If you think this sort of scam is a new phenomenon of the modern technological age, think again. In the Middle Ages around 1550, there was a similar scam known as the 'Spanish prisoner letter', in which a fictitious prisoner would promise to share a hidden treasure with the person who would send him money to bribe his guards.
To add insult to injury, the Nigerian tricksters are not only attempting to defraud us of our money, but they are insulting us with a word they probably stole from us as well!