Last week, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it is finally retiring its elephant act. Perhaps the circus’s most famous elephant was Jumbo, whom Barnum bought from the London Zoo in 1882 with much hullabaloo. Jumbo’s legendary size lives on in the legacy of his name. Jumbo cigars fill our mouths and jumbo jets fill the sky. We gulp jumbo-sized sodas in our stadium seats as jumbotrons fill our eyes. So, let’s size up the origin of jumbo.
From West Africa to England, from Arabian hunters to Italian animal traders, from Prussian menageries to American circuses, Jumbo’s incredible and outsized story may be well known, but the etymology of jumbo is certainly not.
In short, we aren’t exactly sure who named Jumbo, why, and what the name precisely means. Some argue that Jumbo was named for a Zulu word for a “large packet” or “large parcel”; others, for the Swahili for “hello” (jambo) or “chief, boss” (jumbe). Also cited is a Kongo word, nzamba, apparently a word for “elephant,” though nzombo has been glossed by Daniel Webster as “python,” according to Eric Partridge. Yet others argue that Jumbo is taken from a 19th-century slang term, jumbo, originally referring to a big and clumsy person–which word may be derived from another proposed origin of the elephant’s name, mumbo-jumbo.