[Ads-l] Antedating "to root" - as in cheering for or supporting a team

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 28 23:12:06 UTC 2019

Etymonline.com lists the earliest date of "root," meaning "cheer, support . . . originally in a baseball context" as 1889.  It says the etymology is uncertain, but generally thought to be from an earlier sense of "root," meaning hard work, which, in turn, was based on "root," as in a pig digging with a snout.

I found one early example, from 1888, in a billiards context.  The headline is consistent with the hard work sense of the word.  The description of "rooting" here seems focused more on making physical gestures and articulations to encourage the ball, than on the cheering or support as it later came to be understood.

A Fine Specimen of the Billiard "Rooter" Hard at Work.

. . . "Don't you know what a rooter is?" asked the proprietor.  'Why, it's a man as 'roots' the legs off the tables and the color from the balls, bending htis way and that and trying to influence his ball to count. . . . they watched him follow his ball down the rail, grab a corner of the table with one hand, then lean over the ball and all but move it with his other hand so that it would count. . . . "There he goes again," as the gentlemanly opponent made an unprotested miss, and the "rooter" again took the cue.  "See how he twitched his mouth that time," and "Oh, see him fish," as the excited player trotted after his ball, then made motions with his cue like those of a fisherman whipping a trout stream to indicate the way he wanted his cue ball to go.
[End excerpt]

The Evening World (New York), April 25, 1888, page 3.

There is another early description of "rooting" that also focuses on making physical gestures intended to bring luck to an athlete (this time a track athlete at Madison Square Garden).  The same reference says that "root" was a slang word for "luck", suggesting, perhaps, a different origin than "hard work" as generally believed.

 All right, boss,” he said cheerfully, as he walked away, “I see yer onto me – but say! Give us fi’pence, will yer, just fer roots?”  He got his five cents.  “Roots” is slang for luck.  To “root” for an undertaking you must clinch your fists, grind your teeth, stamp your feet and wish harder than you ever wished before.  It is a very popular expression now.  Somebody asked the Count Giannini the other day how he came to win two first prizes in the last great athletic games at Madison Square Garden.  “I couldn’t help winning,” he answered apologetically.  “Both my little nephews were there rooting for me as hard as they could.”
[End Excerpt]

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Washington), February 26, 1889, page 7.

Following the hint that "root" might mean "luck", I ran into a lot of references to Voodoo practices involving roots.  To "root" or "work roots" were verbs meaning to use roots in a charm or spell, for good luck or to cause bad luck.  Might this be related to the slang word "root," meaning "luck" as reported in 1889?

It seems plausible, if unproven.  Other early examples of "root" might be read as consistent with either theory.

I put some examples and my thoughts together in a blog post.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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