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What Does ‘MacGyver’ Mean?

If you hear people say they "MacGyvered" something, it means they came up with a creative solution, possibly using everyday items such as duct tape or a Swiss Army knife. Here's why.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #637
A title image from the TV show MacGyver

Last week, when I was talking about the difference between duct tape and Duck tape, I described it as “that especially strong tape that helps you MacGyver your way through life,” and a listener named Judith asked “Where did [MacGyver] come from as a verb,” and I had to laugh because, of course, many of you would have no idea what I was talking about! I’m sorry. I spend half my life thinking about why we say unusual phrases such as “to boot” and “beyond the pale,” and I had a huge blind spot about MacGyver because it is so familiar to me.

"MacGyver" was a TV show in the United States that was popular when I grew up in the 1980s. I actually can’t remember much about it except that it became a joke in my family that MacGyver could fix almost anything with duct tape. The best overview I could find comes from Wikipedia:

“The show follows secret agent Angus MacGyver [who was] educated as a scientist in physics …. Resourceful and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences, he solves complex problems by making things out of ordinary objects, along with his ever-present Swiss army knife, duct tape, and occasionally matches.”

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It’s uncommon to use “MacGyver” as a verb. In a search, it looks like people occasionally use “MacGyvering” on Reddit, and there’s an entry in Urban Dictionary going back to 2005. I found a couple of examples of the past tense—“MacGyvered”—in the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

Here’s one from “Skiing” magazine:

After more than an hour struggling up the trail with a MacGyvered towing system for nine people plus gear, everyone arrived at the cabin.

And this one is from a “Technology Review” magazine article about ALS patients:

Many of them, he saw, were adapting to the challenges of their disease with creative tactics such as switching to electric toothbrushes when they lost their manual dexterity, or rigging up remote-control systems to accomplish tasks they could no longer perform themselves. "My favorite TV show as a kid was MacGyver a show about an adventurer who would escape peril using items like duct tape and a Swiss Army knife, and these patients had MacGyvered their own solutions," [Wicks] says. 

Notice that the person being quoted essentially gives a definition of “MacGyver” before using it as a verb, which is a good clue that he doesn’t consider it to be a common word that readers would immediately understand. I found two more examples for “MacGyvering,” so maybe the verb will make it into the dictionary one day, but for now, you should consider it slang.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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