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Q: origin of the term "Grand Poobah" ( Answered,   2 Comments )
Subject: origin of the term "Grand Poobah"
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Books and Literature
Asked by: oldbark-ga
List Price: $30.00
Posted: 30 Jun 2002 08:12 PDT
Expires: 30 Jul 2002 08:12 PDT
Question ID: 35149
What is the origin - - the first use in history - - of the term "Grand
Poobah"?  I think it might be literary; that is, I seem to recall that
such a term was invented by C.S. Forrester in one of his Horatio
Hornblower novels, for the chief of some tiny island nation.  But it
might have been in used before that.  Or it might have come from
musical comedy, or what is nearly the same, the world of politics.
Subject: Re: origin of the term "Grand Poobah"
Answered By: leli-ga on 30 Jun 2002 09:08 PDT

Thanks for the question which led me to a comprehensive and
fascinating website on Gilbert and Sullivan, the two Victorian
gentlemen famous for their enduringly popular light operas.

Pooh-Bah is a dignitary (supposedly Japanese) in the Mikado, one of
their best-known works.  I can't find him actually called grand in the
original but he is described as Lord High Everything Else.  Along with
the Lord High Executioner and the Mikado himself he provides a
caricature of grandiose pomposity for Gilbert and Sullivan to poke fun
at.  You will find huge amounts of information - plot summary,
libretto, audio files, reviews and more - at:  .

I can't actually prove that Gilbert  (who was in charge of words while
Sullivan composed the music) invented the name himself but I have
always believed this to be the case. Maybe this confirms your feeling
that there was a literary/musical comedy background (with a political
flavour?) to the name.  Also, it fits with all the other made-up names
in the Mikado: Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko and Nanky-Poo for starters.

Another page at the same site: 
will refer you to lots of information about Gilbert if you want to try
to establish that this was definitely the first-ever use of the name.

Let me know if this needs any follow-up.


search strategy "Gilbert and Sullivan" lyrics
Subject: Re: origin of the term "Grand Poobah"
From: wlk115-ga on 30 Jun 2002 09:19 PDT
""Poobah" comes from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado," which
debuted in 1885 and skewered the then-current rage in Britain for all
things Japanese.  Set in the fictional small Japanese town of Titipu,
The Mikado tells the story
of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, Yum-Yum, his fetching ward, and
Nanki-Poo, a wandering minstrel who is actually the son of the Mikado
(Emperor) in disguise.  The plot of The Mikado is far too baroque to
relate here, but one of
the other characters is, you guessed it, Poo-Bah, who holds the
exalted offices of Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Buckhounds and
Groom of the Back Stairs, as well as the handy catch-all post of Lord
High Everything Else.

"Lord High Everything Else" was such a brilliant summation of the
self-important puffery of bureaucracy that "Poo-Bah" (and its variant
"poobah") immediately became a popular mocking synonym for someone who
holds a number of offices, wields ultimate power, or exhibits an
inflated self-regard. "

The Word Detective
6th entry
Subject: Re: origin of the term "Grand Poobah"
From: huntsman-ga on 30 Jun 2002 10:24 PDT

You might want to see the 1999 British film "Topsy-Turvy", which tells
the backstage story of the design and production of "The Mikado" by
Gilbert and Sullivan.

A trifle long, it offers excellent performances (and performances *of*
performances) by all, with historically accurate details, wonderful
costumes and sets, engaging songs, and personal insights into the
lives of the producers and characters.

Actor Timothy Spall in particular does a delightful job playing the
actor Richard Temple, who in turn portrays the Mikado (the Emperor).
Vincent Franklin plays Rutland Barrington as the "Grand" Pooh-Bah.

The following site gives a complete list of the film's credits along
with many other details and related links:

Topsy Turvy

Here's a review:

Roger Ebert

Check your local video rental stores for a copy. "Topsy Turvy" has
been on cable TV occasionally, and is also available on DVD from


I enjoyed it thoroughly: perhaps you will also.

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