How Jumbo the elephant paved the way for jumbo mortgages

The 11-foot-tall elephant reshaped our language, which has proved surprisingly apt.

Perspective by Luke Fannin
Luke Fannin is a PhD student in the ecology, evolution, environment and society graduate program at Dartmouth College, where his research focuses on the evolution, ecology and life history of mammals through the prism of their teeth.
The Washington Post, December 12, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EST

Americans have long been fascinated with "jumbo" things: jumbo shrimp, jumbo jets, jumbotrons. Perhaps few know, however, that the word and the imagery it invokes of larger-than-life objects is rooted in the legacy of Jumbo, a celebrity elephant of the 1880s made famous by the London Zoo, P.T. Barnum and the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

While Jumbo is remembered for his ability to entertain circusgoers, the elephant also left a nuanced legacy in our language. For example, jumbo mortgages are loans exceeding the limits set by the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Unlike ordinary mortgages, jumbo-size loans are also not fully securitized or guaranteed, elevating risks to the lender. In other words, jumbo mortgages are both excessively large and excessively risky. This apparent double meaning for "jumbo" better captures the legacy of Jumbo the elephant in American pop culture than simply his size alone.

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