The Grammarphobia Blog

On jingoism and jingoes

Q: Barack Obama said last year that he had stopped wearing his flag-lapel pin because he disapproved of “jingoism.” After listening to his recent speech at the convention, it occurred to me to look up the origin of the word “jingoism” in several online dictionaries. It apparently began life as “jingo,” a magician’s expression, like “presto” and “abracadabra.”

A: I may be missing something, but I can’t find a single reliable source that says Obama ever used the word “jingoism” in his flag-pin comments. A lot of other people, though, have used the term in referring to his remarks.

Is this another urban legend?

But back to the origin of “jingoism.” Although you’ve looked up the word in several online dictionaries, let’s go to the mother of all etymological resources, the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the word originated in the 17th century as “jingo,” which the dictionary defines as “a piece of conjuror’s gibberish.” However, the earliest citation for “jingo” in the OED refers not to a magician’s incantation but to a clergyman’s trimming – or, rather, mangling – of a biblical text.

In a 1670 satirical book about clerical life, a clergyman gets hold of a biblical passage, “then tanutus, high jingo, come again … minces the Text so small, that his Parishoners … can scarce tell what’s become of it.” (I’ve expanded on the OED citation by going to the original source.)

In 1694, the expression “by jingo” was used for par Dieu in a translation of Rabelais, suggesting that “jingo” may have also been considered a euphemism for God, similar to “golly” or “gosh.”

A more recent theory cited by the OED is that “jingo” may be related to a similar Basque word. “Such an origin is not impossible, but is as yet unsupported by evidence,” the dictionary says. It discounts as a 19th-century joke the idea that “jingo” might be short for St. Gengulphus. (The jokester must have had an odd sense of humor!)

The word “jingo” took on its political meaning in the 19th century when it was used as a nickname for a supporter of the British policy to use the Royal Navy to resist the advance of Russia during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 and 1878.

This new sense apparently arose from the use of the word “jingo” in “We Don’t Want to Fight,” an 1878 song by the English composer G.W. Hunt: “We don’t want to fight, but, by jingo if we do, / We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.”

An 1878 newspaper citation refers to “The Jingoes – the new tribe of music hall patriots who sing the jingo song.” And an 1879 citation says, “The Jingoes ought to rejoice and be glad that their ‘tall talk’ did not drive us into a war with Russia last year.”

By the end of the 19th century, the term was being used more generally, according to the OED, for “one who brags of his country’s preparedness for fight, and generally advocates or favours a bellicose policy in dealing with foreign powers; a blustering or blatant ‘patriot’; a Chauvinist.”

The earliest citation for the actual word “jingoism,” which the OED defines as “the policies or practices of the jingoes,” is from an 1878 letter by the English essayist Abraham Hayward: “Another year must pass away before ‘Jingoism’ receives its death-blow.”

Finally, here’s an amusing 1881 citation from a British magazine: “We call it Jingoism in England; in France it is called Chauvinism; and in the United States, Bunkum.”

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