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To pamper slaves with extra food and rest to make them appear stronger and healthier in preparation fo their sale.

Forgotten English
copyright 1997 Jeffrey Kacirk

"Mangonize: v.t. To polish for setting off to advantage."
-- Webster 1828

The word mangonize is thoroughly obsolete, apparently dying a final and complete death in the mid-1800s. This is evidenced both by the fact that it currently appears only in dictionaries, and perhaps more importantly, that these dictionaries mostly seem to include it as an amusing curiosity.

Most words die quiet deaths as they fade into obscurity; some hang on because they are poetic, or weird, or just so common that they can't be let go of. Mangonize didn't quite fit into any of these categories, but someone decided to keep it, apparently on the basis of 'weird'. In order to do this, they choose a very specific meaning -- to fatten up slaves for sale. This meaning had been around for centuries, but it was not the primary meaning. This meaning was popularized in Ben Jonson's play The Poetaster in 1601. But before that, mangonize had a rather varied past.

Greek: It all started with the Greek magganeuein, meaning to 'trick out' or 'dress up'; But it was not limited to salesmanship; it also included such spectacles as jugglery, illusion, and deception1.

Latin: "mango n. a dealer in wares that are decked out or refurbished." This included horses and slaves, but also included other wares, and could even refer to a chef presenting food in a pleasing manner.2 This is often translated as the Latin word for 'salesman'3, as opposed to the more respectable merchant, mercatans; of course, there were those even less respectable, for example the caupo4, or huckster, from which we get the English word cheap. We also get our English word monger (as in fishmonger) from mango.

English: Until the late 1700s, the meaning of this word mirrored its usage in Latin -- it could refer to slaves, but usually it just meant that something was dressed up for sale. It became more common to apply it to street vendors and shopkeepers, rather than animal traders.

It is worth noting that this used to be a quite popular word, and was used in a number of different forms -- for example:

Moreover, the word 'mangonize' was used in a number of various contexts -- one might criticize the over-breeding of a vegetable or flower species by leveling an accusation of horticultural mangonization. While mangonization had a negative connotation, there is nothing inherently wrong with fixing up old wares to make them useful again, and mangonists could include tinkers, junk dealers, prostitutes, anyone who dealt in salvage, and even most food vendors -- it was established practice to wax walnuts to give them a healthy gleam and to keep the freshest fruit at the top of the basket.

The connection with the slave trade is weak, at best. Just as a horse trader makes sure that his horses are well fed and groomed before bringing them to market, a slave trader would naturally allow his stock to heal their wounds, put on some weight, and clean up before marching them to the auction block. This is not an unexpected practice -- nor, in its time, a particularly repulsive or censured one. The strong connection between mangonizing and slavery is primarily due to one literary reference:

Captaine Tvcca: How do'st like him? art not rapt? art not tickled now? do'st not applaud, rascall? do'st not applaud?

Histrio: Yes: what will you aske for 'hem a weeke, Captaine?

Tvcc.: No, you mangonizing slaue, I will not part from 'hem: you'll seil 'hem for enghles5, you.

--The Poetaster by Ben Jonson, 1601

This one literary example earned 'mangonize' a place in 17th century dictionaries. After all, the well-bred literati needed to understand such references. While the word was going out of fashion and might otherwise be dropped completely from the English language, it was important that this usage be recorded -- otherwise, we would not know what Mr. Jonson was talking about!

While the more traditional meanings still appear in most dictionaries, it is more and more common to emphasize the one meaning that still approaches relevancy -- as is appropriate. I do like to remember that this word was important and well-used for reasons completely unrelated to slavery, but admittedly, I do not recall ever coming across it in a work of fiction other than Mr. Jonson's. Perhaps my own fault for not writing historical fiction...


1. An etymological dictionary of the Latin language by Francis Edward Jackson Valpy, 1828.

2. A new abridgment of Ainsworth's Dictionary, English and Latin, by J. Dymock, 1830.

3. Mango was also sometimes given as the Latin translation of 'regrate', a crime in which someone bought large quantities of some good and resold them without changing their form or location -- in other words, buying out the competition in order to raise prices. This was considered a crime in many jurisdictions.

4. Wordnerds may have have come across an alternative etymology; 'cheap' does indeed comes to us from the Dutch koop (meaning trade or purchase), but the Dutch took this from the Gothic kaupon, which comes from the Latin caupo, meaning a small tradesman, or, in some cases, an innkeeper (from cauponari, traffic).

5. Angel: A coin of 15th century Scotland and England, bearing the figure of the archangel Michael. This translation is an assumption on my part, as I cannot find any other references to 'enghles'.

Man"go*nize (?), v. t. [L. mangonizare, fr. mango a dealer in slaves or wares, to which he tries to give an appearance of greater value by decking them out or furbishing them up.]

To furbish up for sale; to set off to advantage.

[Obs. or R.]

B. Jonson.


© Webster 1913.

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