This word is still as popular as it ever was, but few writers who use it to describe that bellicose chauvinistic attitude to foreigners that expresses itself as aggressive or warlike patriotism know that it’s from a magician’s catchphrase via a music-hall song.
Jingo dates from the late seventeenth century and is first recorded in the forms by jingo! or high jingo! as a bit of conjuror’s patter when some item was revealed as though by magic (the opposite of hey presto!, used when something was ordered to disappear). By jingo! was also used around this time as another of the many euphemisms for by God or by Jesus and so became an interjection to show one’s surprise or to give emphasis. It turns up, as one example out of a very large number, in Fanny Burney’s Evelina of 1778: “ ‘If I live an hundred springs,’ answered he, ‘I shall never forget it; by Jingo, it has served me for a most excellent good joke ever since.’ ”
Exactly a century later, during the Russo-Turkish war, Russia was threatening to capture Constantinople. George Hunt, a prolific writer of music-hall songs, composed a topical song for the actor and singer Gilbert Macdermot (real name Gilbert Farrell), who was then performing regularly at the London Pavilion under the stage name of The Great Macdermot. The song immediately became a hit, especially the first four lines of its refrain:
We don’t want to fight
but by jingo if we do...
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,
and got the money too!
This was taken up by what we would now call the hawks of the London public, who had for some time been after the Russians’ blood. The Daily News first called them jingoes in its issue of 11 March 1878; a subscriber wrote to the paper two days later about “The Jingoes — the new type of music-hall patriots who sing the Jingo song.”
The prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, had by then ordered the Mediterranean fleet to the defence of Constantinople and indeed the war had already ended on 3 March through the signing of the treaty of San Stefano between Russia and Turkey. Jingo itself didn’t last very long, but the derived nouns jingoist and jingoism survived to become fixed parts of the language.