In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


The Origins of Mumbo Jumbo

Engaged in a meaningful conversation with your Doctor, but can't understand a word he's saying? There's no need to feel badly. You need to learn some mumbo jumbo.

Return with us to 18th century Africa and the Mandingo tribe. A central feature of their religious beliefs was the worship of a special spirit that protected the village and kept women in a state of submission.

His name was Mama Dyumbo, literally an "ancestor with a pompom." Whenever women acted "uppity" or simply talked too much, the "aggrieved" husbands would mimic that deity, donning hideous makeup, highly elaborate headpieces, and colorful pom-poms — driving the women out of their homes for a communal whipping.

The ritual was totally incomprehensible to the English who later settled the region. They also couldn't pronounce Mama Dyumbo, corrupting it over time into "mumbo jumbo."

So it was that the phrase became associated with meaningless and befuddling language, empty ceremony, and technical jargon — as opposed to plain old English.

Could anything be clearer?