Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Meet the Dinosaur with "Mojo"

What happens when paleontologists get together for drinks and brainstorm for names of dinosaur species? They come up with Mojoceratops, inspired by the mystical, magical mojo. And with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Paleontology this week, the name is official.

The press release from Yale University, the home institution of paleontologist Nicholas Longrich, tells the tale:

When Nicholas Longrich discovered a new dinosaur species with a heart-shaped frill on its head, he wanted to come up with a name just as flamboyant as the dinosaur's appearance. Over a few beers with fellow paleontologists one night, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind: Mojoceratops.
"It was just a joke, but then everyone stopped and looked at each other and said, 'Wait — that actually sounds cool,' " said Longrich, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. "I tried to come up with serious names after that, but Mojoceratops just sort of stuck." ...
It was only after coming up with the unusual name that Longrich looked into its etymology. Surprisingly, he found that it was a perfect fit for the species, which sported a flamboyant, heart-shaped frill on its head.
"I discovered that 'mojo' is an early 20th-century African-American term meaning a magic charm or talisman, often used to attract members of the opposite sex," he said. "This dinosaur probably used its frill to attract mates, so the name made sense."

Dictionaries surmise that mojo has an African origin, perhaps related to moco'o ("medicine man") in the west African language of Fulani, or moco ("witchcraft, magic") in Gullah, a creolized language spoken off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia that retains many African elements. Its earliest known appearance, as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, is from a 1926 text: "The term mojo is often used by the Mississippi Negroes to mean 'charms, amulets, or tricks', as 'to work mojo' on a person or 'to carry a mojo'."

Also in 1926, the word mojo first appeared in a blues song: "My Daddy's Got The Mojo, But I Got The Say-So." Blues musicians would sing many variations on the mojo theme, such as 1928's "Mojo Hand Blues." (Mojo hand is defined by the OED as "any means through which mojo is effected; esp. a small bag of charms.")

Over time, mojo moved away from the blues world and into mainstream usage, as a sometimes comical term for "a power, force, or influence of any kind." It has worked its way deep into pop culture, from The Doors (Jim Morrison sang an anagram of his name, "Mr. Mojo Risin'," in the song "L.A. Woman") to Austin Powers (in "The Spy Who Shagged Me," Dr. Evil travels back in time to steal Austin's mojo).

Recently on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Stephen Goranson noted a now-forgotten variant of mojo, with syllables reversed: jomo. Goranson dug up an example of jomo that predates the first known citations for mojo, in the Baltimore Afro-American of July 4, 1925. The article is headlined, "'Jomo' Bags Fail":

Will Hollins is to spend six months in jail as a result of his failure to work any spell with his famous "jomo" bags on the judge of the police court here. It is claimed that Hollins had been taking money from his customers for ills which he said were curable with his bags.
The "jomo" bag happened to be, when examined, a plain cloth bag, filled with ordinary steel filings, picked up in a blacksmith's shop. Hollins carried a steel bar magnet with him and when making a sale, is supposed to have impressed the sick and the halt by passing the bar over the bag so as to attract the latter. He almost invariably made a good impression. Many of his dupes appeared in court to attest his success with them.

But back to Mojoceratops. Longrich's use of humorous wordplay to come up with a species name is hardly unique. The website Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, has many such examples from the annals of taxonomy, including dozens and dozens of puns. The puns often take advantage of the system of binomial nomenclature passed down from Linnaeus, such as Abra cadabra (a clam), Ba humbugi (a snail), Heerz lukenatcha (a wasp), and Ytu brutus (a water beetle). Linnaeus himself had fun with species names, dubbing a bird species Upupa epops!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Tuesday July 13th 2010, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
And let's not forget Mojo Jojo, the villain from the Powerpuff Girls.

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