Final Word

The mojo of election and political vocabulary


The governing ANC in particular will hope it can rediscover its mojo from the Mandela days as this year’s election campaign picks up momentum.

Over the ages, starting in the days of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations, the world of politics has richly contributed to our vocabulary and often given its own meaning or additional content to existing words.

Two of those are ‘mojo’ and ‘campaign,’ used in our introductory paragraph. When their origins are analysed, it becomes clear they can be quite appropriate in the political context in ways that are not always flattering.

Just last week, desperate to lift the generally downcast spirits of the South African society, especially on the economic front, Minister Jeff Radebe of the presidency claimed "We have not lost our mojo …”

Mojo from Africa? 

There is not absolute consensus among etymologists about the origins of ‘mojo’. The general explanation is that it arrived in English via America from Africa – thanks to the erstwhile slave trade. It is said to derive from the West African word mojuba, meaning ‘I salute you’.

Its American roots seem to lay in the American Southwest and “Gullah moco witchcraft, magic, probably akin to Fulani moco’o medicine man”, according to the Random House Dictionary.

However, some claim it comes from the Spanish word mojo, which means ‘wet’, from mojar, which in turn means ‘make wet’. One then also finds the word in Cuba where it is the name of a sauce or marinade containing garlic, olive oil and sour oranges.

The most common definition for its modern use is “a power that may seem magical and that allows someone to be very effective, successful, etc.”. And it spread into general usage thanks to jazz, blues, pop music and movies.

Campaign and candidates

And while the campaigning for this year’s municipal elections has started in earnest, one should not expect too many niceties, considering the military origins of the word ‘campaign’.

Its root is the Latin word campania, for an open field. However, it arrived in English via French from the Italian word campagna, where it was a military term.

It derives from the notion that an army would move from its position in a fortress or castle to the open countryside to engage in battle – taking the field, so to speak. In this context it dates back to the mid-16th century.

Some of those who marched would describe themselves as champions of the countryside, another word which derives from the same Latin source as ‘campaign’.

The word came to English as a political term in America for organised activity to mobilise voters during the early 19th century, with the first known use in 1809.

And that those who emerge after an election as the winners, or the champions of the campaign, would want to celebrate with a few bottles of champagne is also quite appropriate. It so happens that the word ‘champagne’ shares its root with ‘campaign’.

In the local government elections, with its municipal wards, candidates will play a central role during the campaigning.

The term ‘candidate’, a word related to ‘candid’ as in ‘frank’, also dates back to ancient Rome and the Latin word candidus for ‘pure white, glistening’.

In Ancient Rome those standing for election wore dazzling white togas. White (especially sheeny white) was the symbol of purity and light, freedom from evil intent and later freedom from bias.

I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves if this term is still quite appropriate for today’s politicians.

Gerrymandering and voting

Central to the present court battle in South Africa over verifiable addresses for voters on the voters roll is the fear that without it manipulation of the process could take place as independent candidates in Tlokwe claimed happened there.

Such manipulation is also often referred to as gerrymandering.

The term ‘gerrymandering’ originated in America and refers to the 19th century corrupt governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry. His manipulation of the boundaries of voting districts resulted in a map which in its shape resembled a salamander, and the term ‘gerrymander’ was born.

In the final analysis, in a democracy it is all about the all-important ‘vote’, a term that also takes us back to ancient Rome and Latin. It derives from vōtum, the Latin verb for ‘to solemnly promise’.

It first appeared in the English during 16th century with the meaning ‘grave undertaking’, which to this day, to some extent, is still preserved in the word ‘vow’.

From this meaning also developed the ‘wish or desire’ sense of the word, giving rise to the present day election context – the idea being that people can indicate their wishes by casting a vote.

The right to vote is not only a basic right, but voters should probably also keep in mind the definition that Ambrose Bierce attached to it in his 1911 The Devil’s Dictionary: “The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”

by Piet Coetzer

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