[Ads-l] Jumbo (Size/Quantity)

Geoffrey Nathan geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU
Tue Nov 24 20:46:46 UTC 2020

While I have no opinion on the etymology of the actual word 'jumbo',
its use to mean large quantities of some object  (of any size) is semantically
totally transparent, and an example of a very common metonymic shift,
from 'container' to 'quantity within the container'. A jumbo-sized
(meaning extremely large) package can refer metonymically to a jumbo-sized amount
contained therein.

For example,  'He ate a whole box of 'jelly beans',
meaning a large number of jelly beans (equally small, of course).
He didn’t eat the cardboard.


Geoffrey S. Nathan
WSU Information Privacy Officer (Retired)
Emeritus Professor, Linguistics Program
geoffnathan at wayne.edu

From: Z Rice<mailto:zrice3714 at GMAIL.COM>
Sent: Tuesday, November 24, 2020 1:49 PM
Subject: Jumbo (Size/Quantity)


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Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
Poster:       Z Rice <zrice3714 at GMAIL.COM>
Subject:      Jumbo (Size/Quantity)

I noticed some time ago that the word jumbo 'numerous in quantity,
enormous' is erroneously attributed to an elephant and Barnum and Bailey in
several western dictionaries.

The elephant origin theory does not seem to explain the use of the term in
daily speech - in which jumbo also refers to something quite tiny, but
numerous in quantity (i.e., a jumbo Skittles).

Instead, the Kikongo zumbe 'enormous, numerous in quantity' would be a more
appropriate, and historically sensible explanation for the word jumbo
'enormous, numerous in quantity' in the United States.

The Oxford dictionary claims that jumbo (enormous, numerous in quantity) is
'probably the second element of "mumbo jumbo"', defining mumbo jumbo as
"language or ritual causing or intended to cause confusion or

How jumbo 'enormous, numerous in quantity' would derive from such a meaning
is not explained.


Zola Sohna

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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