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Juju & jujube

Q From Peter Piecuch in Maryland: A current advertisement on American TV uses juju. And as a youth, I remember a specific type of candy called jujubes that I saw for sale only in movie theater lobbies. Are the two words connected?

A Two such similar words as juju and jujube really do look as though they might be related in some way. However, as far as I can discover the only connection between them is that they both came into English through French.

The sweetmeat was originally the dried dark red fruit of a tree called zizyphus, a relative of the blackthorn, or a sweet dyed and flavoured with its juice. Though it doesn’t look like it, there is a direct link between Zizyphus and jujube. The ancient Greeks called the tree zizyphon, possibly from the Arabic zizouf, a name for the mythical lotus. This was taken into medical Latin as zizyphum, or zizypha for the fruits. The change of the zs to js seems to have occurred in the Old Aretine dialect of Italian in medieval times, turning it into giuggeba or jujuba. From there the word moved into French in roughly its modern form, and so into English as the name both of the tree and the dried fruits. (Zizyphus itself has become the name of the genus that includes the jujube, Zizyphus mauritiana.)

The word juju for a native African charm or spell seems to be a form of the French joujou for a toy, which derives from jouer, to play. Quite how the word came about nobody seems to know, though it was certainly created at the end of the nineteenth century in West Africa, probably somewhere around the Niger Coast.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Oct. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 October 1999.