“Mumbo jumbo” means unnecessarily involved and incomprehensible language, nonsense, or big empty talk, and is often associated with fraudulent religious ritual.
The phrase was first seen in print in the mid 1700s as Mumbo Jumbo, denoting a supposed African idol. The current sense dates from the late 1800s.
“Mumbo jumbo” is often used to express humorous criticism of middle-management, and specialty jargon, such as legalese, that non-specialists have difficulty in understanding. It may also refer to practices based on superstition, rituals intended to cause confusion, or languages that the speaker does not understand.
Mumbo Jumbo is an English phrase often cited by historians and etymologists as deriving from the Mandingo word, “Maamajomboo,” which refers to a masked male dancer who takes part in religious ceremonies. Mungo Park’s journal Travels in the Interior of Africa (1795) describes “Mumbo Jumbo” as a character, complete with “masquerade habit,” whom Mandingo males would dress up in order to resolve domestic disputes.
The phrase appears in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, originally published in serial form between 1855 and 1857. “He never dreamed of disputing their pretensions, but did homage to the miserable Mumbo jumbo they paraded.”
First published in 1899, The Story of Little Black Sambo has a titular protagonist whose parents are named “Black Mumbo” and “Black Jumbo.”
In 1972, Ishmael Reed wrote a postmodern novel titled Mumbo Jumbo which addresses a wide array of influences on African diaspora and culture including historical realities like the Scramble for Africa and the Atlantic slave trade.
In Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, the character Jubal speaks of Mumbo Jumbo as the “God of the Congo” towards the end of the novel in a discourse on the meaning of religions.
Francis Moore, in his 1738 work Travels into the inland parts of Africa noted:
“The women are kept in the greatest subjection; and the men, to render their power as compleat as possible, influence their wives to give them an unlimited obedience, by all the force of fear and terror. For this purpose the Mundingoes have a kind of image eight or nine feet high, made of the bark of trees, dressed in a long coat, and crowned with a whisp of straw. This is called a Mumbo Jumbo; and whenever the men have any dispute with the women, this is sent for to determine the contest, which is almost always done in favour of the men. The people also swear by the Mumbo Jumbo; and the oath is esteemed irrevocable. There are very few towns of any note that have not one of these objects of terror, to frighten the poor women into obedience.”
Guess they never heard of flowers and candy!