Friday, November 10, 2006

Why is it called a "yo-yo"?

Who's asking: Keith Bea, Alexandria, VA

First of all, I have to say how flattered I am to be asked a question from a major-league researcher and policy analyst -- Keith works for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, where he investigates far more serious matters and does not have time to waste on the sort of thing we wonder about at

His actual question was based on his discovery that the word "yo-yo" is the Tagalog name for the toy; how did Americans pick up a word from Tagalog?

I've always thought of yo-yos as being one of those mass media-created mid-20th century crazes, like the Hula Hoop or the Frisbee. A little time on the official website of the National Yo-Yo Contest and Museum showed me how wrong I was.

Yo-yos are one of the oldest human toys, with references going back to 500 B.C. They probably originated in China, but Greek vases from around 500 B.C. show youths playing with yo-yos, and archeologists have found terracotta yo-yos in temple ruins. Egyptian illustrations also show things that look like yo-yos.

Yo-yos landed in Europe in the late 18th century, and a 1789 painting shows the doomed Dauphin Louis playing with his emigrette ("little emigrant"). They were all the rage in Napoleon's court, by which time they were called "joujou de Normandie." (This is one theory for the origin of the name "yo-yo," but it's incorrect.) By 1791 the toy had made it to England, where it was called a "bandalore" or a "quiz." The first mention of the toy in the U.S. came in 1866, when two men filed a patent application for "an improved bandalore."

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the planet, Filipino toymakers had perfected their own version of the toy, made of wood. A 1916 Scientific American supplement included the yo-yo in an article on "Filipino Toys;" the name, the article said, meant "come-come" or "return" in Tagalog.

Pedro Flores brought the first Filipino yo-yos to California in the 1920s, and opened a factory in 1928. Flores' yo-yos were carved from a single piece of wood. Instead of having a string tied to the central axle, Flores looped the string to allow the axle to keep spinning -- the "sleeping" action that makes most modern yo-yo tricks possible.

Entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan Sr. saw Flores doing tricks with his yo-yo in San Francisco in 1928 or 1929, and was so impressed he bought the company. A marketing genius, he sent teams of "Duncan Yo-Yo Professionals" around the country to put on exhibitions of all the cool tricks you could do with a yo-yo. He trademarked the word "yo-yo" in 1932, and opened the Duncan Yo-Yo factory in Luck, Wisconsin, in 1946.

By 1965, the word "yo-yo" had become so universal that the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that Duncan could no longer hold on to the trademark. The Duncan Company was forced into bankruptcy later that year; the Flambeau Plastics Company purchased the yo-yo business, and continues to produce 11 different models of Duncan yo-yos. June 6, Donald Duncan's birthday, is now designated as National Yo-Yo Day. (Not to be obnoxious, but I'd like to know when Pedro Flores' birthday is, and what holiday he gets.)

I myself have been yo-yoing to and from Massachusetts this week, and leave again in a couple of hours for the New England Crime Bake, happening this weekend in Lowell. Gaslight Theater's performances of The Mousetrap continue this weekend at Hallowell City Hall; I won't be there tonight, but will be back for closing night tomorrow (and then back in Lowell on Sunday morning. What was I saying about the beneficial effects of caffeine?).

No reading list this morning, as I'm already too far behind. No posts tomorrow or Sunday, either -- check back for books and more on Monday.

No comments: