The Vocabularist: Getting your mojo to work

Michael Gove and Muddy Waters
Image caption Michael Gove and Muddy Waters both contributed to the development of the word mojo

Michael Gove said leaving the EU could help Britain "recover its mojo". But how did this phrase get so popular?

In African-American folklore a mojo - sometimes jomo or monjo, mojo bag or mojo hand - is an elaborate lucky charm which often needs careful concealment and looking after to ensure it keeps "working". By extension it can mean personal spirit or power.

The Journal of American Folklore in 1962 said that a North Carolina mojo could contain roots, various small dried animals, dimes, red dirt, steel wool, gray clay and pumpkin seeds in a little black, brown or green bag.

An earlier description quoted by hoodoo expert HM Hyatt said a mojo might contain particular roots, a lodestone and incense powder, and be sewn up in red flannel.

Almost all reference books suggest a derivation from the word moco'o, meaning medicine man in the Fula family of west African languages.

They also mention moco, meaning witchcraft in the Gullah speech of black people on the US south-west coast. One might add that moco or moko means a spirit, usually mischievous, in many parts of the Caribbean.

Image caption Jim Morrison of the Doors famously sang the phrase "Mr Mojo Risin'" in 1971 - an anagram of his name.

In 1925 the Afro-American newspaper reported that Will Hollins of Alabama was jailed after failing "to work any spell with his famous 'jomo' bags on the judge". The bags were supposed to cure disease but were filled with waste iron filings.

By this time the term mojo was well known to white Americans too from its constant mentions in blues songs and comic routines such as that of Jodie and Susie Edwards, known as "Butterbeans and Susie".

The artist most associated with the term was Muddy Waters - recognised by the Beatles in Come Together (1969 - "He got muddy water; he one mojo filter").

Waters sang in 1950 that he was "Going to Louisiana... get me a mojo hand". He later made famous the song Got my Mojo Working, originally sung by Ann Cole and written by Preston "Red" Foster.

A constant theme with mojo is that you cannot arrogantly rely on it to bring you success. Experts advise that it must be cared for and "fed" by regularly applying special powders or liquids.

And still it may not be enough to overcome someone else's powers. As Butterbeans and Susie could attest:

"My Daddy has the Mojo,

But I got the Say-so.

His mojo won't do him any good."

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