Simple Simon met a Pundit….

Dear Word Detective: “Get your mojo on!” Where and when did this phrase come into popularity? — Catherine Clark.

That’s a darn good question. Interestingly, I just plugged “mojo” into Google News and found about 1700 hits for the word at the moment. The first was from something called The Benton Evening News, from Illinois, where they seem to be convinced that the word is properly capitalized as “MoJo,” which it isn’t. I suspect that they’re either confusing “mojo” with “MoDo,” snarky blog parlance for Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, or conflating “mojo” with “HoJo,” which used to be popular shorthand for the now largely defunct Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. (The company still operates motor lodges.) I was quite fond of HoJo during its heyday, especially on Unlimited Fried Clams Night, but that orange roof was about as close to anti-mojo as architecture could ever be.

“Mojo” is, at its most basic level, simply “magic.” The word first gained notice in the 1920s, originally in scholarly collections of African-American folklore. Since the tales collected were often hundreds of years old, we can assume that “mojo” is just as old. In fact, “mojo” probably arrived with the slaves brought to the US from West Africa, and is almost certainly rooted in African languages, possibly the Fula word “moco’o,” which means “medicine man.” It is also thought to be related to the Gullah word “moco” meaning “witchcraft.” (Gullah is a very old creole language, employing both standard English and bits of African vocabulary, still spoken by some African-Americans along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts).

“Mojo” entered the broader slang vocabulary in the US primarily through blues and jazz music, and by the 1960s was beginning to appear in the mass media (“Muddy Waters sang about troubled love and about his ‘mojo,’ a voodoo conjuration which would work on anyone but the one he wanted,” Sunday Times (London), 1960). Soon the meaning of “mojo” had broadened from literal “magic” to “personal magnetism or charisma,” “mastery of the game,” or even simply “good luck” (“With his weather mojo working overtime he got four hot sunny days,” 1966). To “have your mojo working” or “get your mojo on” meant to work your personal magic, whether that consisted of attracting the opposite sex, compelling the admiration of peers, or simply selling lots of used Plymouths. “Mojo” had gone mainstream, and the least likely people in the known universe to actually possess “mojo” began to bemoan their lack of it (“All the televised football in the world can’t compensate suburban men for their lost warrior mojo,” NY Times Magazine, 1999).

“Mojo” today is a favorite of sportswriters and purveyors of political analysis (a subset of sportswriting, after all), and in an election year in the US, there’s a bumper crop of “mojo” up for discussion, especially when it evaporates (“But others insist [Obama] actually is weaker…. They say he’s lost some of his mojo,” Wolf Blitzer, CNN, June 3, 2008) or is squandered (“Hillary peaked too soon and then didn’t get her mojo back until it was too late,” Human Events, June 10, 2008). Of course, if any of the candidates has any actual “mojo,” we can only hope that they use it in the service of good, optimally by turning Wolf Blitzer into a squirrel.

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