Stupid Question ™
Feb. 13, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Presumably the word “jumbo” comes from the name of the famous elephant. But what was the elephant named for?
A: Presuming is often a jumbo mistake. The word “jumbo” actually predates the famous circus elephant by at least 35 years.
The origin of “jumbo” is unclear. It’s also unclear whether the word actually is responsible for the name of Jumbo the elephant, since most contemporary accounts claimed “Jumbo” came from an African word (though exactly which one was never pinned down).
What we can say for sure is that Jumbo the elephant codified and popularized the word “jumbo,” especially as an adjective meaning “very large.”
The elephant Jumbo arrived at the London Zoological Gardens in 1865, about four years after being captured in Africa and exhibited in France. He apparently was named by his London keepers.
In 1882, P.T. Barnum bought Jumbo for his Barnum and Bailey Circus. Jumbo was struck and killed by a train in 1885.
The “Oxford English Dictionary” has found citations for “jumbo” dating to the 1820s, when it was a noun referring to something or someone not only big but clumsy.
The prevailing guess—unconvincing, in my opinion—is that it comes from “mumbo-jumbo.”
This term originally showed up in the early 1700s in accounts by white explorers who claimed Mumbo Jumbo was a god worshipped by West Africans. No such god has been identified, though the “Oxford English Dictionary” suggests it comes from the Mande phrase mama dyumbo, referring to a type of fetish.
With typical European condescension, “mumbo-jumbo” became, by the late 1800s, a generic term for nonsense (particularly in ritual or form). But how this would inspire “jumbo,” meaning “big and clumsy,” I don’t understand.
Surprisingly, no one has suggested a connection to the common word “jumble,” which goes back to the 1500s and is also of unknown origin. Its connotations of confusion and muddle are at least as close to “clumsy” as “mumbo-jumbo” is.
Now, back to the elephant. Barnum himself didn’t know the origin of Jumbo’s name. He repeated the common claim that it was an African word, but also noted the prior existence of “jumbo.”
One common claim was that “jumbo” meant “elephant” in “African.” This is not true, though the Swahili term tembo is vaguely close. “Jumbo” doesn’t mean anything in any African language, as far as I can tell.
A more likely claim is that “Jumbo” was a twist on Swahili jumbe, meaning “chief.” It’s possible that Jumbo’s keepers derived the name by combining this Swahili word with the already existing English word “jumbo.” (Foreign words are often translated to sound like existing words in the speaker’s language.) It’s even possible that the English word “jumbo” came from jumbe by some forgotten African exchange.
Of course, it is also possible that Jumbo was simply named for “jumbo” and that the “African” influence was just a rumor or publicity claim.