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1795 a fellow by the name of Mungo Park was spending some time in Africa. I don’t know what the name Mungo might suggest to you, but it didn’t suggest to me that he was Scottish, but he was.
He subsequently wrote a book called Travels in the Interior of Africa in which he explains that Mumbo Jumbo “is a strange bugbear, common to all Mandingo towns, and much employed by the Pagan natives in keeping their women in subjection.”
Evidently a ranking male was decked out in some disguise and brought in to ritualistically intimidate any woman who had become quarrelsome. This evidently included public beatings while naked and tied to a post.
This account is related in Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and it’s consistent with The Oxford English Dictionary’s citation of mumbo-jumbo’s first appearance in English about 60 years earlier in 1738.
The words themselves are thought to possibly have meant “a revered ancestor”—that’s mumbo—“wearing a pompom”—that’s jumbo; this in reference to the disguise worn by the enforcer.
The most recent OED etymology says the mask itself might have been called maamajomboo.
Our current understanding of mumbo-jumbo is more along the lines of the OED definition number two: “Obscure or meaningless language or ritual; jargon intended to impress or mystify; nonsense.”
Such a meaning was understood in English at the time of those revelations of African wife abuse but it’s unclear—to me at least—whether the meaning derives from the fact that the person representing the mumbo-jumbo was only disguised and not really an important ancestor, or that these guys were babbling meaninglessly as they beat their women.
Most sources seem to point to the former.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.