05/30/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2014

Who, Or What, Was 'Jumbo'?

Most of us, one time or another, are moved to ejaculate the despairing term "Murphy's Law!". Life throws up too many moments which are proof to that eternal verity that if a thing can go wrong it damn well will go wrong. But, for all those who use the phrase, only one in a hundred, I guess, know who Edward A. Murphy was -- an American aerospace engineer of no great interest to posterity other than that he came up with his "law."

Which brings us to jumbo. Do a google search and you'll come up with millions (literally) of uses of the J-prefix. No-one needs any explanation as to what, for example, the following mean: "Jumbo Financial Plan Adopted" (Boston Globe). "You don't need a jumbo bank for a jumbo mortgage" (MarketWatch). "Apple prepares for $17bn Jumbo bond sale" (Financial Times).

Those of us not intimately concerned with billion dollar transactions routinely eat jumbo burgers and fly jumbo jets. And let's not get into jumbo condoms. In short, it's a ubiquitous and useful term for bigger-than-bigness. But where does it come from? As with Mr. Murphy, the origin is generally unknown. Jumbo was, once upon a time, the most famous mammal that ever lumbered across the face of the earth: more famous than Tarzan's Cheeta, Lassie, Hans the Clever Horse or Shamu.

The elephant later to be known as Jumbo was born in what is now Eritrea -- then (the 1860s) a wild region penetrable only by explorers and big game hunters. The "people's zoo" was an institution taking root in Europe. They wanted specimens for fee-paying punters to gawp at. The young elephant (fully grown elephants were not then transportable) survived an arduous journey to be acquired first by a German traveling circus, then by the Paris zoo and finally the newly established London Zoological Gardens.

He was the first African elephant (a different species from the Asian variety, zoologists tell us) to be displayed in Great Britain (a stuffed specimen had been one of the most popular displays at the 1851 'Great Exhibition' in the Crystal Palace). In London he was given the name "Jumbo." No one knows its origin. It could be bastardized Swahili (Tembo, apparently, means chief), or a term used among the horse-racing fraternity for a clumsy, worthless, animal.

At London Zoo in the 1870s, poor Jumbo was brutally beaten at night with hammers to make him docile. Elephants, unlike dogs or horses, can't be domesticated. But they can be mastered (crushed is the trainers' term). Nor, unlike those other beloved four-legged friends, do elephants ever develop any love for their two-legged masters. They don't like us.

Out of sight, so as not to upset ignorant us, they are brutally treated -- to this day. If you want to know the details, and have strong nerves, look at the PETA clips on YouTube together with Alec Baldwin's eloquent plea against circus elephant mistreatment.

By day, and for the paying public, Jumbo won the heart of the Great British Public. Never was an animal so loved. They made a howdah, or carriage, for his back and children, particularly, queued up, twopence in one hand, a currant bun in the other, for the great "treat." Among those children were Theodore Roosevelt (later a great slayer of African elephants) and Winston Churchill (who preferred slaying human beings by their thousands, as at Dresden). Disneyland originated in those rides.

Elephants have pretty much the same lifespan as us. In nature they last till around seventy, when their last set of teeth give out, and they die of starvation. In their twenties they become sexually mature. It's a violent phase of male life. In it male elephants develop a condition called musth when they become wholly uncontrollable.

Jumbo, in the early 1880s, was becoming sexually rampageous. Although he was making a mint of money for the zoo (which they reinvested in ground-breaking research), an elephant gun was ordered. But then, out of the blue, came rescue. Phineas T. Barnum offered $10,000 dollars for him: the elephant gun order was cancelled.

The American great showman was in his sixties, and planning his legacy. He was thinking not just big -- he'd always done that -- but maximal. He had created a three-ring circus, The Greatest Show on Earth. It was Jumbo's fully grown bigness he wanted. He would be a skyscraper on four living legs. Barnum paraded Jumbo all around North America in his sumptuous railroad "palace car." He was a top billing attraction everywhere.

Britain had not parted with Jumbo happily. 100,000 children wrote to Queen Victoria to save their beloved "friend" for the nation. Motions were brought in Parliament. Furious editorials were written. But, as the Zoo knew (and kept to themselves) Jumbo could not be safely confined in the cramped conditions of the Regent's Park establishment and there was, as yet, no 'wild animal park' in Britain for him (there wouldn't be until 1928).

His years with Barnum were the least unhappy in Jumbo's life. He had more freedom of movement (even the occasional dunk in a river, or pond). I suspect that he was kept tranquil by the generous administration of strong liquors. He was borderline alcoholic (did he see pink elephants when smashed, one wonders?). And drink may have conduced to his sad end. He was carelessly crossing railway lines, after a particularly exhausting show in Canada, and converted into 'six tons of elephant mash' (as The New York Times irreverently put it). Never one to miss a chance to extort a dollar from the suckers (there's one born every minute, he's supposed to have said) Barnum had him stuffed and displayed all over the world. Jumbo made more money for his owner dead than alive.

And that's where the term originated. So the next time you fly a jumbo jet, clamp your teeth on a jumbo burger, or splash out on that irresistible jumbo deal spare a fond thought for the elephant who started it all.

If you want to know more, read my book, Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation (Aurum Press, $23.95). At $10.36, Kindle edition, it's a jumbo bargain.