This short little word looks to me a bit like one of Robert Motherwell’s series of paintings called Elegy to the Spanish Republic. But that has no relation to the sense of this word. I would do better to say that the j looks reminiscent of the strips of bois bandé bark I saw on sale in copious quantity in St. Lucia, purported to do some good juju for your mojo or some good mojo for your juju or, anyway, to boost your sexual prowess.
Which leads us to the sexual connotations one may get from the m and ojo shapes in this word. But I’m sure your imagination is working just as fine as you want it to in that regard.
But what does this word make me think of first?
My first encounter with mojo was as the name of little chewy fruit-flavoured candies (wax-paper-wrapped parallelepipeds) I used to eat when I was a kid. The name seemed reasonable enough; it’s a little, chewy kind of word. In my youth, if I’d heard “bad mojo,” I would have assumed it was a candy that had a nasty flavour or was so hard it cracked your teeth.
More recently, I – and no doubt many others – would likely think first of Austin Powers, the comic spy played by Mike Myers; in The Spy Who Shagged Me, he loses his mojo (actually, it’s stolen from him). And that doesn’t mean his hard candy. Or, well, it does, but not literally, knowhatimean, nudge nudge, wink wink.
But there are plenty of other things mojo might make you think of. Doors fans will think of Mr Mojo Risin, an anagram of Jim Morrison; they and other music fans might think of Mojo magazine, which includes a clever CD of old tracks or tribute remakes every month; Mojo is also the name of an album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; “Got My Mojo Workin’” is a great blues song by Muddy Waters. There are radio stations, bands, singers, and record labels with mojo in their names. There are sports figures who have it as a nickname (for example Maurice Jones-Drew, an NFL running back). There are companies and food products (but don’t confuse it with the Cuban sauce mojo, which is not said the same way) and clubs and agencies. There are also a board game and a video game called Mojo, and the progressive magazine Mother Jones is often called MoJo.
Mojo is working for sure! And get my mojo working is one of the common phrases that use the word. Get your mojo back and lose your mojo are also popular.
It’s not always to do with sex, either. Sometimes it’s just that mysterious magic. There’s a website called Box Office Mojo that tracks how well movies are doing, for instance.
Pause now and notice how magic and mojo sound similar. What mysterious conjuring does this word work in the imagination, and how much of that secret sauce is a function of its sounds? Impossible to know for sure. But this word has that sort of mysterious je ne sais quoi that makes it some wonderful mumbo-jumbo. It’s exotic, but you can put it in your pocket. It’s that voodoo that you do – or it casts a spell on you.
Where does it come from? It seems to be of a creole origin – a word taken from a West African language (perhaps Fulani) and modified in the framework of a creole, a mixed contact language, one that has a structure from a European language but is full of words borrowed from elsewhere and massaged to fit. Gullah, perhaps. But also, of course, finally, English – a language with lots of mojo of its own.