[Ads-l] Mumbo Jumbo

Z Rice zrice3714 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 25 16:50:19 UTC 2020

In a number of dictionaries, the term mumbo jumbo - 'words, talk, chatter,
idle talk, excuse, reason, ritual, stuff' - is said to derive from an
African mask. (I've also heard "mumbu jumbu".)  However, I've maintained
that the phrase (as it pertains to the aforementioned definitions is
actually Kikongo in origin, from the Kikongo mambu (plural) and djambu
(singular), meaning 'words, talk, chatter, idle talk, reasons, rituals,
abstract things, processes'.

I would also say that the meaning noted in the Oxford dictionary, at least
- i.e., "language or ritual causing or intended to cause confusion or
bewilderment" - is not necessarily consistent with its use in the United
States, particularly that which is found in the South and among Native
Black Americans as a whole.

Still, in a historical context, the Oxford meaning can very well be
explained by the closely-related Kimbundu cognate mambu (plural) 'sermons,
prayers, orations'; such utterances would indeed take place among Bakongo
and Umbundu natives in their native languages and would be intended to
escape the understanding of the era's enslavers and colonizers.

Merriam Webster definition offers the following definition:

- a complicated often ritualistic observance with elaborate trappings
- complicated activity or language usually intended to obscure and confuse
- unnecessarily involved and incomprehensible language; gibberish
- language, behavior, or beliefs based on superstition

This definition, while more extensive than that which is provided by
Oxford, also fails to capture the meanings found throughout the United
States. (I would even say that the meaning seems to reflect the usage of
the bourgeoisie, in particular.)

Zola Sohna


Date:    Tue, 24 Nov 2020 14:02:01 -0500
From:    Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
Subject: Re: Jumbo (Size/Quantity)

I wonder if Vachel Lindsay's notorious poem may have been a vector here:

"Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-jumbo', God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-jumbo will hoo-doo you."

>From "The Congo" (
http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/poetry/poems/the_congo.html), his racist
and/or anti-racist (there is that couplet, "Listen to the yell of Leopold
<http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/poetry/poems/leopold.html>'s ghost/Burning
in hell for his hand-maimed host) poem.


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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list