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Shebang, by Jingo!

The lines above look (and sound) like identical oaths, but that happens only because of the ambiguity inherent in the preposition by. No one swears by my name, while Mr. Jingo has not written or published anything.

Nowadays, jingoism “extreme and aggressive patriotism” and jingoist do not seem to be used too often, though most English speakers still understand them, but in Victorian England, in the late nineteen-seventies and some time later, the words were on everybody’s lips. After the siege of Plevna and the town’s surrender—the bloodiest battle of the Russo-Turkish war—in 1878 (see one of the pictures below), in every pub people sang the song that reached the streets from music halls: “We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do, / We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.” It is for that reason that the origin of Jingo and by Jingo suddenly aroused universal curiosity. However, by jingo predates 1878 by centuries. As early as 1861, a correspondent to Notes and Queries asked: “Who is apostophised by this very common [!] exclamation?” In 1880, a man remembered that sixty or so years before the small boys sang a country song about a dog called Bingo. The end of it was: “Now is not this a sweet little song? / I swear it is, by Jingo! / J with an I, / I with an N, / N with G, / G with an O, / I swear it is, by Jingo!” This song has once been referred to in an attempt to explain the origin of the game (lotto) bingo.

The Apotheosis of War
The Apotheosis of War

The exclamation by jingo was known to Harris Barham. He made use of it in The Ingoldsby Legends, which were published serially in 1837 and ended up in thousands of homes in the book editions of 1840 and 1842. Today even English professors rarely open those versified tales, but they are delightful reading, due to the author’s humor, skillful rhyming, and an occasional sprinkling of slang. One of the legends deals with St. Gangulphus, rendered in English as Gengulphus or Gengolphus. The story tells of a priest who traveled to the Holy Land and returned, greeted with suspiciously exaggerated tenderness by his wife. In the evening, she and the priest’s “clerk” see to it that Gengulphus eats and drinks too much. When he falls asleep, they strangle him, and the villainous clerk wounds him in the thigh. The wound turns out to be deadly. Gengulphus is buried, but, when people open “the casement,” the body appears whole and he “looks as sound as a trout.” The tale ends with a description of many miracles attributed to the murdered man and the advice to travelers not to stay away from their wives for too long. In a footnote, Barnham explained that Gengulphus’s name had given rise to the exclamation by Jingo. This etymology was obviously offered tongue in cheek.

Well-read antiquarians discovered the exclamation in the works of Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith. (The funniest quotation is from Thomas Hood: “Never go to France, / Unless you know the lingo; / If you do, like me, / You will repent, by Jingo!”) Many representative examples appeared in Murray’s OED, which traced the phrase to the end of the last quarter of the sixteenth century. This date could be pushed back to 1661; in the passage quoted by F. Adams (Notes and Queries, 9/I, 1896, p. 350) “Hey, Boys—Gingo…” occurs. Why at that time people began to swear by an obscure person named Jingo or Gingo remains unknown. The same can be said about the origin of the word, but, as we will see below, the case is not quite hopeless.

St. Gangulphus, the apocryphal eponymous ancestor of all jingoists.
St. Gangulphus, the apocryphal eponymous ancestor of all jingoists.

Among those who tried to guess the origin of the exclamation by Jingo we find such important individuals as A. L. Mayhew (who kept an unusually low profile in the discussion), the self-confident Walter W. Skeat, the unforgiving and almost ruthless Frank Chance (one of the extremely few scholars who was able to take down Skeat a peg or two), the widely read but unreliable E. Cobham Brewer, and the unwavering but courteous Colonel W. F. Prideaux. (I decided to make use of qualifying epithets, because I have lived with those people for decades, recognize their style, and sometimes even know their addresses. Most of them are now forgotten, so that their names mean nothing to the modern reader. Yet it is always useful to imagine the face behind a name.)

All kinds of conjectures on the origin of Jingo have been proposed. Gengulphus’s name is uppermost among them. For a long time Skeat firmly believed in this derivation. But Frank Chance demolished it (apparently, once and for all): not only is it hard to trace Jingo to Gengulphus phonetically; the saint is virtually unknown in France, so that his popularity in England would nearly impossible to explain. Chance mentioned St. Gingue, a likelier source of Jingo, but did not develop this idea.

Here I would like to mention Robert Burns’s phrase by jing in Halloween, in the scene of burning nuts (“While Willie lap, and swore by jing, / ’Twas just the way he wanted” (lap “leapt, leaped”). In the poem, jing rhymes with fling, and some people thought that Burns meant by jingo but dropped o for the sake of rhyme. However, Burns’s rhyme is invariably precise, and editions do not add an apostrophe to jing (they just gloss by jing as “a petty oath”). A man from Edinburgh wrote in 1880:

“Not being an etymologist, I can give no derivation for this word jing, but think it may be the same as is found in that other common expression in Scotland, jing-bang: ‘A horse went off jing-bang’, or ‘the whole thing came down jing-bang’, meaning with precipitancy and noise. Scotch boys may have therefore adopted by jing as ‘an oath of meikle might’ simply from the idea of noise and force which the other phrase suggests.”

I have the uneasy feeling that that’s all there is to it. The whole jingbang (that is, the whole kit and caboodle) is a relatively well-known slang phrase. Perhaps the obscure shebang, today also known mainly from the phrase the whole shebang, is “ultimately,” as etymologists like to say, a variant of the whole jingbang, not improbably, under the influence of Irish shebeen “an illicit bar” (or was it simply a blend of shebeen and jingbang?). St. Jingo appears to be a member of the same shebang (jingbang). People used the oath by jing and then added o to jing, as they did in bingo, doggo, kiddo, possibly in lingo, and later in weirdo. This is how St. Jingo, an apocryphal figure, a ghost saint, must have been born.

The other guesses about the origin of by jingo are as follows:

  1. from Jove, Jupiter, or even Jesus, whose name appears in oaths disguised beyond recognition (compare by George!);
  2. from the Basque word for “God”;
  3. from Jirnigo, “a corruption from je renie Dieu [“I deny God”], a watchword of the rebels from the war of the Jacquerie”;
  4. from Persian jang “war”;
  5. as a contraction of Jesu-son-of God;
  6. from Gingko, the name of the sacred tree of Japan (see its image at the top of this post) or from Jingo, the name of the Empress of Japan who lived almost two thousand years ago;
  7. since one of the earliest uses of jingo occurs in Oldham’s satire on the Jesuits (1679: “Hey, jingo, sirs! What’s this?”), the word may be a pun on Loyola’s name Ignatius, that is, Inigo.

Some of those hypotheses are clever, some are sheer nonsense (those are given above in bold), but by the living Jingo! I think they are all wrong.

Image credits: (1) Gingko Tree. CC0 via Pixabay. (2) The Apotheosis of War by Vasily Vereshchagin, 1871. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Heiliger Gangolf. Illumination from the Passionary of Weissenau (Weißenauer Passionale); Fondation Bodmer, Coligny, Switzerland; Cod. Bodmer 127, fol. 66v, by unknown master or ‘Frater Rufillus’, 1170-1200. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Robin Hamilton

    I wonder if there’s a possible connection with the hierarchy of intelligencies in the Chaldean Oracles, as collected by Patricius and translated into English by Thomas Stanley in his History of Philosophy (1656). There, we find:
    “Intelligent Jynges do (themselves) also understand from the father.”

  2. John Cowan

    It beggars belief that by jingo would have nothing to do with hey jingo, listed in the same OED entry as of about the same age, and being magician’s patter for making something appear (the opposite of hey presto).

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Whether from jynges or jinn or some other, the ending in “o” perhaps may have been influenced by imitation of the earlier-attested “presto,” from Italian. Mere speculation. Interesting that the disappearing word appears earlier than the appearing word.

  4. Robin Hamilton

    … and of course in Scots, it morphs into the simple, “Jings!”, which (according to google Ngrams) is widespread between 1900 and 1940, but shows a sharp decline thereafter.

  5. Jenny Gould

    My late father, who was born in 1899 and lived to age 88 and was an extremely conservative, religious man, used “By Jing!” as his strongest oath. He was a school teacher, administrator, and coach. I clearly remember his using “By Jing!” and always wondered about its origin. Dad was born in North Dakota and lived most of his life in Oregon and Washington.

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