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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 is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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