A pooh bah is a person with great and often unchecked political power.
A pooh-bah may hold political office but is an ineffective leader who doesn’t accomplish much of anything.
Pooh-bah is generally a derogatory term. It is often used to suggest pompousness and a kind of stuffed-shirt conceit. The term originated with the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado, which premiered in 1885.
The Mikado featured a haughty, greedy lord by the name of Pooh-Bah, who was played to comic effect. The Pooh-Bah in Mikado was despicable, but he was also a figure of fun. The name quickly became a byword for pompous and greedy men in positions of power.
As early as 1885, the St Louis Dispatch wrote an article denouncing Chief Justice Mike McGrath as the “General Pooh-Bah of Missouri. The newspaper wrote:
If Chief Justice Mike McGrath makes a success of his new combination and continues to draw a salary from the State for doing nothing, while adding an exiguous stipend as can-[several illegible words]eged newspaper, we may expect [several illegible words] generally adopted, to the great improvement of McGrath’s next Directory of Missouri, which might contain such entries as the following:
John S. Marmaduke, Governor of the State and Universal Life Insurance Agent. Policies in all leading companies issued at the Executive Mansion.
Banton G. Boone, Attorney-General and manager of the Missouri Liver Pad Company. Particularly efficacious against the malarial influences of Southeast Missouri.
James M. Seibert, Treasurer and General Financial Agent. Loans and investments carefully attended to.
John Walker, Auditor. Walker’s Lightning Rods are invaluable to every farmer and office-seeker.
Mike McGrath, Chief Justice, Secretary of State and General Pooh-Bah of Missouri. Subscriptions received at reduced rates.
Surely the Secretary of State should not be the only official permitted to bring the State Government into contempt and disrepute.”
In our own times, the term pooh-bah gets thrown around to denote the slightly absurd misuse of power, especially by someone who is entrenched in politics. New Orleans Public Radio described William Daley, a former White House chief of staff under President Obama, as the “son and brother of famous Chicago mayors, former Obama White House chief of staff and all-around Democratic pooh-bah.”
A few years later, in a letter to Deseret News, a reader used the term to complain about President Trump:
Trump’s position during a conference at a table is one of self-contentment: He sits with his hands folded against his chest as if he is a smug pooh-bah. It is hardly a welcoming position for others at the meeting.
The term pooh bah is widely used in the UK as well as in the US. In 2019, the Times of London reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been singled out for jeers at a performance of The Mikado, when the cast made one of the songs about him:
Boris Johnson was honoured at last night’s opening of the ENO’s The Mikado with a whole verse in the Lord High Executioner’s updated Little List song. “The blond-haired populist — yes, BoJo’s on my list,” sang Richard Suart, going on to call the PM a “truth economist” with “the morals of an alley cat and hands that like to wander — was the pole-dancer at his floppy disc or hard drive, one must ponder?” do insist.