Consider me strange, if you wish, but I embarked upon a rather interesting--and relatively fruitless--linguistic study this week.
First of all, lest Tommy Lasorda become confused, I should make it clear that “linguistic” is not a pasta.
That clarified, let me tell you about my extensive research into the derivation of a word which is becoming increasingly common hereabouts.
In its most common form, as utilized by the multitudes in the stadium, it could be spelled in a more elongated manner. It would be more like “booooooooooooooooo.” The O’s, in truth, could actually run on to infinity.
What is this word? Or is it really a word?
It is a word. It’s in the dictionary. It is, perhaps, the most onomatopoeic of words, meaning that the word itself is an imitation of the sound it represents.
But what is this sound?
Why is this the manner in which American sports fans express their displeasure? If the erstwhile local heroes are being so pathetic in their ineptitude, why not laugh? What would it sound like if 50,000 people were laughing at the same time? Wouldn’t laughter be more degrading?
However, Americans do not collectively laugh or cry or whistle or groan or stick their thumbs in their ears and wave their fingers.
It has been said, through the years, that Philadelphia’s fans are the toughest to satisfy.
Earlier this year, you probably recall, Mike Schmidt was mired in a puzzling slump and the populace took to booing each frustrating effort he made. That a hero of such epic proportions should be subjected to such abuse would be baffling almost anywhere.
Schmidt finally responded by taking the field wearing an outlandish wig and dark glasses. The fans laughed. And then booed.
As might be expected, New York fans boo, too. The U.S. ambassador to Canada had to issue an apology Tuesday because New Yorkers booed the Canadian national anthem last week.
This took place before the first game of a series between the Yankees and Blue Jays. George Steinbrenner, being the icon of good taste that he is, ordered the public address announcer to appeal to the fans before the playing of the Canadian anthem the next night.
The fans applauded the announcement--and then once again booed “Oh Canada.”
We know Philadelphians boo and New Yorkers boo and San Diegans boo, but we don’t know how such a word came to become such a vital part of our language. We know students at the University of Washington waved the first wave, but not who booed the first boo.
Did our forefathers boo the British while they were dumping tea in Boston harbor?
Did the spectators--there were spectators--boo the Union soldiers who fled ignominiously from Bull Run I?
Did Congress boo Seward for the folly of buying Alaska from the Russians?
I don’t think so. I researched the word in the library and found an 1889 publication called the “Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia.” It defines “boo” as an exclamation to inspire surprise or fright. It does not indicate it had yet come into use as an expression of dismay.
Thus, it would seem that booing is a 20th century phenomenon. The modern era has brought air travel and computers and polio vaccine and televisions.
Unfortunately, though my research did not uncover the origin of boo as an expression of disdain, it made we aware of other boos. It revealed that boo was a type of marijuana in the drug culture of the early 20th century and that boo is the short, stubby tail feather of a young ostrich. I guess you could smoke a boo or go to the zoo and see a boo.
This was not what I needed to know. I did not want to either smoke or see a boo. I wanted news about the boos I heard at the stadium.
Another etymological treatise suggested only that boo was imitative of the sound made by a cow. It may rhyme, but I don’t think fans moo or cows boo.
I agree, to be sure, that there are other words which can occasionally be mistaken for booing. Padre fans Gooooooooose Gossage and Charger fans used to Loooooooooooouie Kelcher, and the uninitiated sometimes ask about what sounds like booooooooing in unbooable situations.
However, in this September, San Diego fans are finding more than what they might consider their fair share of booable targets.
This brings me to the last book I saw on the shelf. It was written by someone named Webb B. Garrison and it was entitled “Why You Say It.” It was a statement rather than a question.
I picked it up, but slipped it back onto the shelf without opening it. I suspected the book would not say boo about boo, but it wouldn’t make any difference.
I know why fans say boo. I just don’t know why boo is what they say.
Regardless, this is a summer when boo is being said with alarming frequency whether the Padres or the Chargers are at home. This strange sound echoes throughout the stadium, causing athletes and coaches to cringe--and wish they were like the bird with the boo on his bottom. Then they could stick their heads in the sand and pretend the world had gone away.
So I have investigated this word people don’t really say, and come away unenlightened and unenlightening. I can only say boos, like the world, will never go away.