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What Do the Words of the Mardi Gras Song Mean?

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If you've only heard one Mardi Gras song, it's probably "Iko Iko," the hit recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965. An earlier version (titled "Jock-a-mo") by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford came out in 1953, and many artists, from Dr. John to the Grateful Dead to Cyndi Lauper, have covered it. It's a playful, taunting chant, that comes from the traditional call and response challenges of two battling tribes at a Mardi Gras parade. The chorus goes something like this:

Hey now! Hey now!
Iko iko wan dey
Jock-a-mo fi no wan an dey
Jock-a-mo fi na ney.

Everyone has recorded it a little differently, but no one who recorded it knew what it meant. Crawford had heard the phrases at parade battles, and the Dixie Cups said they had heard their grandmother sing it.

There are as many guesses about the meaning of this song as there are versions of it: Jock-a-mo means "brother John," or "jokester," or "Giacomo;" Jock-a-mo fin a ney means "kiss my ass," or "John is dead"; Iko means "I go," or "pay attention," or "gold," or "hiking around"; the words come from French, or Yoruba, or Italian...

Reporter Drew Hinshaw decided to ask some experts about the origin of the song after he noticed the similarity between the Iko refrain and a stirring call-and-response chant he heard at a parade in Ghana: "Iko Iko! Aayé!" In this 2009 article in the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat, he recounts how he showed the lyrics to a local linguistics professor who thought they definitely came from a West African language. Back in the US, a professor of Creole Studies thought it came from a mixture of Yoruba and French Creole, and proposed the following breakdown:

Enòn, Enòn! Code Language!
Aiku, Aiku nde. God is watching.
Jacouman Fi na Jacouman causes it
ida-n-de We will be emancipated.
Jacouman Fi na dé Jacouman urges it; we will wait.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia says some mysterious, unnamed "creole lingua specialists" endorse the following French-based Creole interpretation:

Ena! Ena! Hey now! Hey now!
Akout, Akout an deye Listen, listen at the back
Chaque amoor fi nou wa na né All the love made our king be born
Chaque amoor fi na né All the love made our king be born

Another theory making the rounds of various folk music message boards is that the "jock-a-mo" part comes from a Native American language where "chokma finha" means "very good." This at least matches up with what Crawford said about his original 1953 recording: he sang "chock-a-mo," but it was misspelled on the record label as "jock-a-mo."

We will probably never be able to pin down the origin of the words or what they once meant. But it may well be that even from the very first chanting of the phrases, the Africans, Native Americans, French, and English that made up the great language/culture mélange of New Orleans all understood it in their own way. And still had a good old time anyway.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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