“government mumble-jumble,” revisited

Curious to see whether my blog would show up in a search, I Googled “government mumble-jumble” the other day, sure that my entry “Frivolocity” would have the only example.

There were twelve other hits (mine did show up); mine was the only one that treated the term as a coinage or an error. Behind my back, it has entered the lexicon for serious speakers.

On the other hand, Google found a lot of uses of “mumbo jumbo”; but almost all of them, on the first three pages at least, are dictionary entries or the names of games or rock bands.

We discourage students from considering Wikipedia “research,” but its quality has risen markedly over the last couple of years, and it’s certainly handy for a quick-and-dirty. The entry for “mumbo jumbo” is very interesting. It elaborates on definitions such as Webster’s that note an origin in the name of an African idol or deity and current meanings having to do with complicated rituals, obfuscation, and incomprehensible language. Here’s Wiki:


(Sorry, I can’t seem to make it interactive; you’ll have to go there separately…)

Of course the traditional phrase is “mumbo-jumbo,” with or without the hyphen, not “mumble-jumble.” I’ve always known what it meant, and so I haven’t looked it up before. And I’ve always understood a kind of African flavor to it, just as “hocus-pocus” has that nice Latin-mass derivation. But while these matters encode cultural histories and attitudes for all time, and are therefore very interesting and connotationally rich, I’m not sure I want to use them anymore. In both cases, some critical outsider-observer said “Oh, these crazy so-called religions, with their superstitions and ‘magic’! Oh, see how they bow down to their idols!” or “Oh, see their belief that that bread actually becomes God’s body!”or “Wow, ha-ha, I can use that in my tricks!” Religious litany as nonsense language; sacred moments as sideshow magic for the superstitious. Mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus.

“Mumble-jumble” is a term that seems to communicate effectively to a lot of people the idea of meaningless and misleading language, as well as the kind of confusion also evoked by “red tape” (how many who use that expression know its origin? and yet it still seems to work). Government functionaries muttering incomprehensible information as they hand the hapless citizen a pile of tangled and wadded tape and string: that works pretty well—Kafka for those who haven’t read Kafka. And no colonialist, racist, ethnocentric, religionist history lurking in the etymology.

An enlightened, evolved agnostic living in the 21st century can get down with that. I’m a convert. From here on, it’s “mumble-jumble” for me.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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