Etymology
Advertisement

mumbo jumbo (n.)

1738, originally in an account of an incident which took place 1732 near Sami in modern Gambia. The Mumbo Jumbo was described as a costume "idol" used by locals to frighten women into submission. The outfit was placed on a stick outside the town during the day, and by night someone would dress in it and visit women or other people deemed a problem, to settle disputes or bestow punishment. Other 18c. spellings include Munbo Jumbo, Numbo Jumbo and Mumbo Chumbo. The original account is of the Mandingo people, but no obvious Mandingo term has been identified as the source. Proposals have included mama dyambo "pompom-wearing ancestor" and mamagyombo "magician who exorcises troubled ancestor spirits." Perhaps it is a loan word from another Niger-Congo language (see zombie.) The French transcription of the word is moumbo-dioumbo or moumbo-ioumbo, Portuguese mumban-jumban.

Every town in the region was said to have a Mumbo Jumbo, and 19c. colonial accounts of the practice made it into a byword for a "superstitious object of senseless worship" by 1866, hence the meaning "big, empty talk," attested from 1896.

updated on January 30, 2023

Advertisement
Advertisement