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Mascot – Podictionary Word of the Day

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Birds are a popular kind of mascot.

So are cuddly looking creatures of indeterminate species. For some sports teams aggressive looking beasts with lots of teeth.

But I haven’t noticed too many mascots in black pointy hats riding on broomsticks. Etymologically that might be the most appropriate kind of mascot.

Right at the end of 1880 an operetta called La Mascotte played first in French and then in English in 1881 introducing the English speaking world to the word mascot.

The operetta is about a girl named Bettina who is sent to take care of the turkeys of an unlucky farmer by the farmer’s brother.

Bettina is said to be a living good luck charm but the farmer doesn’t believe it. But before he can send her packing, a local prince appears on his doorstep and the farmer becomes court chamberlain.

Bettina is also drawn into the court intrigue but then runs away with her boyfriend who had originally been a farm boy with her.

They join the army, she dressed as a boy, and the army unsurprisingly wins all its battles.

Lucky Bettina is called a mascotte because French had a word that had come from the Provençal word mascoto meaning “magic charm.”

This is thought to have come earlier from Latin where masca meant a witch; the one who applied the magic charm.

In a time when mass media was restricted to print and live performance an operetta like La Mascotte was enough to launch a new word into English.

People started to call themselves or others mascots and because inanimate objects could be lucky too, by the first world war fighter pilots were said to bring mascots with them on their missions; here we are talking lucky rabbit’s foot not farm girl.

The transition from lucky charm to branding symbol might be associated with hood ornaments that used to protrude from the front of cars. The various winged women, big cats and other symbols sticking up at the front of the car were also called mascots.

Though The Oxford English Dictionary has updated its entry for mascot as recently as 2008, there is no indication there as to when someone dressed up in a costume representing a sports team’s brand was first called a mascot.

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.

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