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The meaning and origin of the expression: Your name is mud

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Your name is mud

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Meaning

You are unpopular.

Origin

In May 2010, BP tried to cap the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by plugging the leak with heavy mud. Had it worked, it might have given them some hope of limiting the damage to their reputation. As it didn't, the BP brand name is, more literally than most, mud. BP's CEO Tony Hayward has joined another villain of the collective American psyche, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who is widely reviled for his part in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

lincolnDr. Mudd gave medical help to John Wilkes Booth, who broke his leg while escaping after shooting Lincoln in 1865. Mudd was convicted of being Booth's conspirator, although the evidence against him was ambiguous and circumstantial, and many historians argue that he was innocent of any murderous intent. He has since been pardoned and there's even a Facebook site dedicated to salvaging his reputation.

Actually, whether Dr. Mudd was innocent or not is of little consequence in regard to the origin of 'your name is mud', as it was in general circulation long before Lincoln was assassinated. This citation comes from John Badcock (a.k.a. 'J. Bee’) in Slang - A Dictionary of the Turf etc., 1823:

"Mud - a stupid twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration, or of a leader in the Courier."

If the phrase wasn't originally 'your name is Mudd', how did it originate?

Mud is exhaustively defined in the OED as "soft, moist, glutinous material resulting from the mixing of water with soil, sand, dust, or other earthy matter". The word began to be used in a figurative sense as early as the 16th century to refer to things that were worthless or polluting. That usage was later extended to apply to people, as listed in the 1703 account of London's low life, Hell upon Earth:

Mud, a Fool, or thick skull Fellow.

For reasons that are difficult to fathom, 'mud' later began to be used as a general intensifier. In the 19th century there are many printed examples of 'as fat as mud', 'as rich as mud', 'as sick as mud' etc. The combination of meanings of 'decaying and worthless' and 'extremely' was enough for the association of it with someone's name to become an insult - hence 'your name is mud'.

As something that is at one extreme end of the scale, like 'good' or 'stupid', mud features in many English phrases - 'dragged through the mud', 'mud in your eye', 'as clear as mud' etc. The one that BP has most cause to hope isn't true is 'mud sticks'.