Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Amy Harrington is dumbfounded that the word mojo was not included in her library's copy of Magic Words: A Dictionary. The answer is simple, Amy: mojo is a synonym for magic, not a magic word in itself. (See our introduction to the dictionary for a highly detailed discussion of what constitutes a magic word.) Mojo would make for a great entry in a thesaurus of magic words. It is indeed a great word, and here's how it might have looked as an entry in Magic Words: A Dictionary:

Hocus pocus, mojo, whatever you want to call it.
—Jim Harrison, Conversations with Jim Harrison (2002)

Mystique: Mojo possesses an aura of mystery carried across the ocean by West African shamans caught up in slave ships. The word does not refer to fakery or trickery1 but to the working of sympathetic magic. “Mojo can simply mean magic—a magic imbued with African flavor and with the need of indentured peoples to take some control over their lives. And yes, it’s tricky, powerful, and dangerous if not used wisely.”2 The word’s connotations of witchcraft make it a favorite of exotic street performers. For example, physicist Emanuel Derman recalls “a hip-looking, mustachioed, good-humored, short, dark guy who juggled, ate fire, swallowed swords, and often used the word mojo.”3 Mojo refers to the extra spark that helps one to “get that little bit more out of any situation.”4 In other words, “the mojo assists its carrier to view life positively, to create deliberately, to attract delicious life experiences, to have what she or he truly wants.”5

  • bewitchment
  • black magic
    “Mojo. Black magic.” —Lori Handeland, Rising Moon (2007)
  • charm or medicinal root bag
  • charming or cunning personality
    —Tony Rufo, The Complete Book of Pop Music Wit and Wisdom (2006)
  • folk magic
  • hex
  • hocus pocus
    “Legend has it that the apostle’s fossils are full of some kind of magic mojo, holy hocus pocus that could turn an entire army to mush.” —Greg Mandel, High Hat (2008)
  • magic
    “Some magic. Some mojo.” —Joey Anuff and Gary Wolf, Dumb Money (2000)
  • magician
    “Some people, like Yolanda, were mojos—could work magic without any extra help.” —Carol Fenner, Yolanda’s Genius (2001)
  • magic power
    “A magician worried his mojo was losing its potency.” —Vibe Magazine (April 1996)
  • magic spell
  • main, principal, master
    “The mojo portion of thanks to my wife.” —Jeff Wallach, Best Places to Golf Northwest (2004)
  • a mechanism for magic that unleashes the “sayso,” the power to survive a crisis
    —Carolyn Casey Craig, Women Pulitzer Playwrights (2004)
  • moxie
  • luck
  • Mercurial
    “A mojo man who changes his identity to suit whatever country he’s in.” —Annabel Johnson and Edgar Johnson, Gamebuster (1990)
  • mystical pixie dust
    —Ted Gioia, Delta Blues (2008)
  • personal energy, vitality, zest, verve, pizzazz, passion, feistiness
    —Gary Bertwistle, Who Stole My Mojo? (2008)
  • power
    “Mojo is power and magic and goodness—it’s an intangible thing that can’t be adequately described in words.” —Gary Erickson and Lois Ann Lorentzen, Raising the Bar (2004)
  • superstition
  • talisman
  • vendor of magical items (roots, herbs, animal parts)
    —Malachi Andrews and Paul T. Owens, Black Language (1973)
  • sorcery
  • witchcraft
  • wizardry

The word mojo “emanated from West and Central African linguistic antecedents.”6 It originally referred specifically to the rosary of a slave elder7 and later referred to a magic spell cast by spitting.8 The word has also been traced to the West African mojuba, meaning “prayer or homage.”9

  • The Cuban drink mojito “is the diminutive of this loan-word [mojo] and means ‘little spell.’”10
  • In the film Juke Girl (1942), mojo refers to black magic and jomo to white magic. Similarly, in the culture of New Orleans, mojo is “bad magic” as opposed to juju, “good magic.”11
  • The African American novelist Chester Boman Himes (d. 1984) was dubbed “‘the Great Mojo Bojo’ (master of occult knowledge).”12
  • In the Marvel Comic Longshot #3 (Nov. 1985), Mojo is a spineless sorcerer from the Mojoverse.
  • The war cry “Mojo mojo mojo” is chanted by fans of the Odessa, Texas Permian Panthers football team.
  • In the parlance of jazz, mojo is a reference to drugs and sex.13
  • The “Mojo Triangle,” stretching from the Mississippi Delta, to Memphis, to Nashville, is the birthplace of jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll, and country music.14
  • In the film The Powerpuff Girls (2002), Mojo Jojo is the name of a power-hungry villain.15

Variations and Incantations:
  • magic mojo
  • Mo-Jo
    “A Mo-Jo Spell could vanquish an enemy or return a lost love.” —California Astrology Association
  • Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo!
    —H. G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights (2000)
  • Mojo, Mojo! O-m! O—o—m! O—hhhhhhhhhmmmm!!!
    —Mafika Pascal Gwala, Jol’iinkomo (1977)

In Literature:
  • “If we are able to accept the ancient magic of mojo and its ritualistic drums, why not the mysteries of Confucius and his oracles?” —Virginia Eggertsen Sorensen, The Man with the Key (1974)
  • “He became fully conscious in the midst of a dream, still asleep but aware of his state, and primed with the generally vapid knowledge of a thousand volumes of magical mystical mojo.” —Peter Luber, Oneironauticus (2008)
  • “A Hoodoo sun shines and a lucky mojo rain falls.” —Doctor Snake, Dr. Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook (2000)
  • “Some of this mojo rubbed off on us from our shamanic ancestors.” —Oscar London, From Voodoo to Viagra: The Magic of Medicine (2001)
  • “Mo-jo mo-jo / there’s a new lion in the kingdom” —Gregory Corso, Mindfield (1998)

  1. Alan Dundes, Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel (1981)
  2. Nalo Hopkinson, Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003)
  3. My Life as a Quant (2004)
  4. Gary Bertwistle, Who Stole My Mojo? (2008)
  5. James Green, The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook (2000)
  6. Yvonne Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2006)
  7. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World (2005)
  8. Joseph E. Holloway, Africanisms in American Culture (2005)
  9. Joanne O’Sullivan, Halloween (2003)
  10. Jared McDaniel Brown, Anistatia Renard Miller, Dave Broom, Cuba: The Legend of Rum (2009)
  11. Lori Handeland, Midnight Moon (2006)
  12. Stephen F. Milliken, Chester Himes (1976)
  13. Doug Lennox, Now You Know: Big Book of Answers (2007)
  14. James Dickerson, Mojo Triangle (2005)
  15. Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s 2009 Movie Guide (2008)


Gordon said...

What an awesome entry. Thanks, Amy, for prompting Craig to put this together.

I've had more than a few mojitos in my life, and the meaning never occurred to me. Now I want to have another. :)

Tamara said...

I second Gordon's comment! Mojo is one of my favorite magic related words, and this entry just blew me away.