A much-loved tradition in British public schools* is for the school to organise a day where pupils may wear whatever clothes they desire (within certain acceptable public school boundaries, of course) in exchange for a small donation to a charity, paid on arrival at school. This practice has proved extremely successful over the years, because the fear of embarrassment at turning up in school uniform makes an optional practice almost compulsory, thus securing a pound from the grubby fingers of all the school's pupils.
This practice is known as a 'Mufti Day', and every time one comes around, there are always questions as to the origin of the term. Is it an acronym? A nonsense word for a nonsensical practice? An elaborate joke, like the word quiz?
It seems that, in common with ridiculous rules, a culture of bullying, and incompetent bursars, public schools inherited this term from the Armed Forces.
Webster's Dictionary tells us that the word 'derived from the British service in India.'1 Indeed, the school magazine of St Joseph's, Malaysia, recently published an article, asserting that the term and the practice came from one 'General Mufti', who found that allowing his soldiers to 'dress down' on certain days increased their morale. However, this seems a shaky assertion, based on a couple of things. First, the British Army is not known for allowing its standards to slip even in tiny ways, let alone in such a way as this, as long ago as this must have been. Second, it seems inconceivable that a high-ranking officer in the British Army of the yesteryear would have a surname like 'Mufti'.
A far more likely etymology is offered to us by the Oxford English Dictionary, which records the use of the word in 'Grand Master' by Quiz, which gave readers a flavour of India. The story's hero takes off his 'mufti' and puts on his 'red' [British Army uniform has not always been the camoflage colours it comes in today. It apopears that we wanted to give the natives a sporting chance against our military might.]
According to the author of 'Frantic Semantics':
"A 'mufti' is a Muslim priest or Islamic judge. Apparently, British officers thought their off-duty dressing gown, smoking cap and slippers made them resemble Eastern religious leaders, or at least those they'd seen in Aladdin and Ali Baba."2
Incidentally, the Arabic word 'mufti', to which the previous quotation refers, shares the same root as the word fatwa. Hence, the word 'mufti' means 'one who makes a fatwa'.
Regardless of its etymology, the word 'mufti' will probably remain a mystery in the minds of many for a long time to come, as long as the extortionate practice continues.
* The practice is also widespread in public schools in countries which were once part of the British Empire
- ed. Noah Porter. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. G & C. Merriam Co., 1913.
- John Morrish. "Frantic Semantics" Frantic Semantics. http://www.morrish.dircon.co.uk/mufti%20.html (sic). 7 February, 2003.