- Language: English
- Pronunciation: /ˈmæs.kɒt/
- Etymology: from the Medieval Latin masca (spectre, nightmare, mask)
Way back when, football mascots looked like this…
…and travelled around generally behaving like good eggs as representatives of their team.
Today the mascot has seen a gradual decline from this peculiar but essentially harmless (and highly British) form of respectability, to two pigs going at a wolf, a swan that will almost certainly break your arm and this pyjama-clad hellscape of recent past.
At etymological odds
It’s interesting that this downward spiral in the world of the mascot runs opposite to the word itself, which started off as something sinister and, over the course of a thousandish years, came to mean something altogether more upbeat.
The word first pops up as masca in Medieval Latin, and was used for a variety of unpleasantries such as ‘spectre’, ‘nightmare’ and ‘mask’. Following on from that it was used to signify a witch. So far, so spooky.
As Latin died off and left behind all manner of Romance offspring, the word masca took the connotation of ‘witch’ with it into the French dialect of Old Provencal. It also inspired the derivative mascoto, carrying the literal meaning ‘little witch’, but also used to mean ‘magic spell’ or ‘charm’.
We can see that already the connotations of this word are softening from being something outright unpleasant, to something more neutral, which can be used for either good or evil.
A successful rebranding exercise
By the time we reach modern French, mascoto has completed its rebranding exercise and become mascotte, meaning simply a good luck charm.
So, the term has done a complete about-face from the stuff of nightmares to the really quite nice. What this doesn’t explain is how this French word arrived into common use in English. To clear this up, we look to French composer Edmond Audran and his 1880 operetta “La Mascotte”.
The many benefits of the mascot
Audrian’s work, which premiered in Paris in 1880, tells of the mascot Bettina, a servant girl who brings luck to any household she inhabits. In the play it is explained that mascots can variously heal diseases, bring fantastic wealth and handily bring about the removal of nagging wives.
Across the pond and into English
This operetta was a hit, and a very palpable one at that: La Mascotte travelled to the US (as ‘The Mascot’) in an astonishingly short time, appearing in New York City just nine weeks after its French release. From there, its popularity continued to such an extent that within five years it had been performed over a thousand times.
And following this, the PR job was complete: ‘mascot’ passed into common use not only in Romance languages but in English as well. Today, the word is used for all manner for people, animals and objects which are thought to bring luck not only to sports teams but brands, institutions and military units.
An always unsettling presence
So given the murky background of the word, it’s perhaps appropriate that we at TLOF still find mascots unsettling. And this is never truer than when they are dropped unwittingly into sombre circumstances…