Juju: African Magic Word Materializes in English
Juju is a West African magic charm or amulet or gri-gri (see below) used by a shaman, medicine man or witch doctor. Many objects may contain a magical juju spirit. Juju can be the fetish object itself, the magic power inside the object, or juju may be the tutelary spirits who superintend and wield juju, at the behest of the witch doctor, who can insert juju into certain objects like dolls or a familiar fetish object like blood-soaked chicken feathers tied in a bundle and fastened to a small animal or human bone by snakeskin ribbon.
World’s Greatest Dictionary Still Gives Wrong Source
The Oxford English Dictionary maintains an old British racist etymology that they seem wedded to, even in the face of modern comparative linguistic evidence from the study of African etymology. The OED still claims the word juju was made up by Africans repeating a French nursery word for toy, namely joujou. This French word is an example of the reduplication of a root that occurs in many Western languages’ nursery words. Jou is the singular imperative of jouer ‘to play.’ So the word for toy means literally ‘play, play’, precisely what a parent offering an infant a new toy might have said long ago. Compare for similarity in using reduplication the English nursery toilet words: poopoo, kaka and doodoo.
Surprise! There is an African Origin of This African Word!
The problem is: there is a perfectly cogent African etymology for the word. Consider the Hausa word for fetish or bad spirit, djudju, with its root not in French. O, for goodness’ sake, wake up, OED! The word was on African tongues centuries before French imperialists showed up in Africa to mess everything up! Hausa, by the way, is one of the principal languages of Nigeria, spoken by nearly twenty million people there, one-fifth of the population. It is also the language of an additional three million people in Niger. Hausa is a Chadic language in the Afro-Asiatic language family. The word juju was noted in English as long ago as 1894 in a book about West Africa.
In the Yoruba language jù means ‘to throw.’ The general West African root is the Chadic etymon ju ‘throw,’ so that juju is ‘throw-throw’ because the amulet was tossed by the witch doctor or thrown from hand to hand as he induced the powerful spirit to enter the object. Then the fetish was thrown on the ground in front of the person seeking a magically charged object. The witch doctor also throws the juju power into a waiting object with his potent spell. If it were a fortune telling, the sorcerer foretold his fate from the way the juju landed in front of the fortune-seeker. For other nefarious purposes, the seeker might also take the object away and use it to perform evil upon another person. If you need a quickie juju and can’t wait for the witch doctor to get his shit together, you can skip off to a fetish market, shown below, where pre-juju-ed objects await sale.
Good Juju & Bad Juju
A dead monkey’s paw is a commom juju object in West Africa. Good juju cures diseases of mind and body. Bad juju works to get revenge, to assuage jealous rage, or to bring bad fortune crashing down upon the fate and body of someone who has thwarted you in business, in love or cheated you at the marketplace. An individual can accrete good juju to his or her person by doing good deeds: saving a starving dog, giving a crippled beggar a bowl of soup. You can build up juju reserves; then you visit a witch doctor and he deftly transfers the units of juju goodness to a cow’s horn and away you go! All juju-ed up.
Meaning Extended When Word Reached America
Black slaves brought the word and the practice of juju to America. From the 1960s onward, arising in American hippie slang, the word juju took on far broader meanings that juju magic. Juju came to mean the general spirit of a place, a situation, or a plan.
Citations & Usage Examples:
“No way was I going to step inside that dingy motel room. Bad juju.”
“Horsetit, the dealer, said he was going to meet us under the bridge. NFW. His shack smelled like dead toads, reeked of major-league evil juju.”
From the internet: “Juju of the more sinister sort was mentioned in 1997 by Reuben Abati, member of the editorial board of the Guardian Newspapers of Lagos, Nigeria. He told of a Nigerian in the United States who ‘had built a strong network for credit card fraud. He repatriated funds regularly to Nigerian banks. After his arrest, his associates were afraid to testify against him. The fellow was said to have strong ‘juju.’ Even the presiding judge was advised to be careful lest the accused gave him an incurable ailment by ‘remote control.’ ”
In Yoruba, juju names a style of local African music. King Sunny Ade was crowned King of Juju Music in a grand ceremony in 1967. Nowadays in American slang, juju can also mean marijuana or a frowsy woman.
Grigri: A Quasi-Synonym for Juju
A grigri is a charm, a fetish, an amulet, a spell or an incantation that can ward off evil or summon it to befall a victim. It’s a word in the Balante language of Africa. No, OED, it is NOT from French gris-gris ‘grey-grey.’
Citation from OED: “1956 M. STEARNS Story of Jazz (1957) v. 48 Even today, voodoo drugstores in New Orleans are doing a profitable business in gris-gris or magic charms.”
A greegree man is an African magician or fetish priest, one who makes and sells charms and talismans: pieces of jewelry thought to be a protection against evil.
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
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