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Etymology and History of the Yo-Yo

A Chimborazo!

What do a yo-yo, a silk panel hanging from a trumpet, and a quiz have in common?

The answer is they are all alternative wordings for something referred to as a bandelore. Say what? If your curiosity is aroused by that answer, then you’ll know how I felt while following up a reference in the first U.S. patent for a yo-yo.

So join me on this, my latest Chimborazo!

I was reviewing the November 20th web page on the Today in Science History web site, and the last entry was an event in 1866 referring to the issue of the first U.S. patent for a toy yo-yo. James L. Haven and Charles Hittrick of Cincinnati, Ohio, claimed an improvement on the design of a yo-yo. Clicking the link “more” to my expanded page on the subject, I read a copy of the actual patent text.

The toy yo-yo was, in fact, not referred to by that name, and although the patent diagram labeled it a “Whirligig”, the patent was instead titled “Bandelore.” What’s that? A Bandelore? Huh? I didn’t know. I wanted to know. I had to find out.

Google would tell me. So, off we go on this Chimborazo!

Yo-yo production in the U.S. originated with the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara, California, which began hand-making the toys in 1928. The enterprise was opened by Pedro Flores, a Filipino American. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says the word “yo-yo” originated from a northern Philippine Ilokano language. So much for the modern usage, but what about the bandelore?

For that origin, Google helpfully found a definition in a book by Rt. Rev. Samuel Fallows, the 1835 edition of The Progressive Dictionary of the English Language: A Supplementary Word-Book to All Leading Dictionaries of the United States and Great Britain with copyright 1833. From page 385:

Quiz (kwĭz), n. A toy in vogue about the beginning of the century. Called also Bandelore.

What’s that now? Now, a yo-yo is a quiz?

Yes, agreed Prof. Skeat, recorded in the column about the Philology Society Meeting for Friday, 18 Mar 1887 printed in The Academy and Literature: A Weekly Review of Literature, Science and Art (1887), Volume 31, page 242. He gave many interesting examples of etymologies from Col. Yule’s Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words, including:

“Quiz,” the E. name of the toy called bandelore in French, is probably named from its whizzing noise; the mention of it by Moore in 1789 (Life, i, 11) seems older than the usual too often repeated story about its originating in a bet.

“Originating in a bet” is a lead left to follow, later. But first Google offers more from a book by Abel Boyer, The Royal Dictionary: Abridged in Two Parts, I. French and English, II. English and French (1728). Ah! The French connection to the yo-yo traces back to the 18th century. But, surprise!

Bandelore, S. M. a streamer us’d at sea, a Bandrel, or little Flag, also the fring’d bandrel, or silk that hangs on a Trumpet.

That book was of an age where the “s” was printed elongated like an uncrossed “f.” The pages are not numbered, but the columns are arranged alphabetically if you choose to read the original. “S. M.” stands for “A substantive of the masculine gender.” (As I now write, this Chimborazo takes a quick detour to find “substantive” is a noun that designates an object. Quoting a writer in a Using English forum: “In very early terminology, certain parts of speech were distinguished as ‘nomen substantivum’ (substantival noun) and ‘nomen adjectivum’ (adjectival noun) respectively. But now, in English, ‘noun’ (from ‘nomen’ [meaning ‘name’]) came to be restricted to nouns [as currently identified], though we can also call them substantives. In a number of other languages, perhaps more logically, when nouns and adjectives came to be treated as distinct parts of speech, they were called ‘substantives’ and ‘adjectives’ respectively.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry under the spelling “bandalore” and describes it as a toy with a coiled spring to actuate the return of the toy up its string. Both quotations given there are from the 19th century. One from 1824 refers to the bandalore as a “gone-by toy” and the other from 1864 as an “obsolete toy.” Little did those writers know the future. The yo-yo goes… and it comes back. After all, it’s a yo-yo!

The OED also recognizes the word quiz as meaning the bandalore, giving two quotations from Thomas Moore’s Memoirs, Journal, and Correspondence from 1833, one of which is about a “certain toy very fashionable about the year 1789 or 1790 called in French a ‘bandalore’ and in English a ‘quiz’.” A further quotation confirms that time period from the 1792 book identified as Sequel Adventures Munchausen, saying “She darted and recoiled the quizzes in her right and left hand,” which gives an interesting hint at an 18th century demonstration of dexterity playing with two yo-yos at a time.

As for the word yo-yo, the OED recognizes it as a “proprietary name” and for its earliest quotation has an example from 1915 from Philippine Craftsman, though limits its word origin confidence to only “Origin uncertain, but probably from one of the Philippines languages.”

Meanwhile, the OED is the only source I found, so far, mentioning a spring-actuated mechanism. Whereas The Encyclopaedic Dictionary (Cassell & Co., 1886), Volume 5, Part 2, on page 768 has a century-old description matching the modern construction:

quĭz, s. [A word which is said to have originated in the following joke: Daly, manager of the Dublin theatre, laid a wager that he would introduce into the language within twentyfour hours a new word of no meaning. Accordingly on every wall, or all places accessible, were chalked up the four mystic letters, and all Dublin was inquiring what they meant. The wager was won, and the word remains current in our language. (Brewer.)]

1. Something designed to puzzle or turn one into ridicule; a hoax, a jest.

2. One who quizzes or banters another.

3. An odd-looking person; an original.

“I cannot suffer you to make such a quiz of yourself.”—Mad. D’Arblay: Diary, vi. 138.

4. A toy, called also a bandelore, used in the beginning of the present century, and consisting of a small cylinder or wheel with a deeply grooved circumference, to which a cord or string was attached. The game was to keep the toy rolling backwards and forwards by making it unwind and then wind the string on itself.

There’s that “s” for substantive again. And… Ah! That also tidies up the previously mentioned story of a bet. The three sentences about Daly are verbatim from E. Cobham Brewer (1810–1897), Dictionary of Phrase and Fable following the introduction: “Quiz. One who banters or chaffs another.”

According to Christopher Winn in I Never Knew That About Ireland (2007), page 49, the theatre manager was James Daly, who made the bet in 1780 in Ireland, and he hired a posse of schoolboys to chalk up the word “quiz” on so many walls and surfaces so widely that Dublin was quickly agog and speaking the new word. The OED is silent about any such origin, but its definition of a quiz as “A person who ridicules or who engages in banter; a wit; a mocker; a practical joker,” is followed by a quotation from 1797: “Now, gentlemen, as you have taken to yourselves the name of Quizzes…” Presumably the editors of the OED are too skeptical of the Daly story to include it.

Wandering further on the Web, there are various pages on yo-yo history written by those interested in the toy and its development, and there is a lot of shared lore. My Chimborazo has, thus far, pursued documenting some background to the words themselves, whether yo-yo, bandelore, bandalore, or quiz, which such other pages merely mention usually without further comment.

Concerning these pages, the oft-repeated lore states that the yo-yo as a toy was known with a terra cotta example from as early as ancient Greece in 460 B.C. However, as with many instances whether in books or on the web, some more diligent research turns up a more careful interpretation.

Some sites refer to examples of the ancient “yo-yos” held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Indeed there is an attractive photograph of it there. It turns out to be carefully decorated on the circular surfaces with art attributed to the Penthesilea Painter. One side shows Nike (the personification of victory) offering a fillet (band) to a youth. The other side, illustrates Eros and a youth. That website, however, describes it and several other examples as of “exceptionally fine quality but of undetermined function.” It is carefully stated “the two most frequently advanced interpretations are that they served as bobbins or yo-yos.” Significantly, the description continues, “The fragility of the material makes clear that they must have been dedications.” In other words, so much care devoted as to make an exquisite offering, yet these examples were perhaps too delicate to be practical as a toy.

Yet tantalizingly, there is more convincing evidence with images of people playing with yo-yos painted on vases and plates, such as a widely illustrated plate from the mid-fifth-century B.C. Perhaps, were they of a more durable wooden construction?

So this Chimborazo has meandered from a yo-yo patent to the French bandelore, the small, fringed flag-like silk panel hanging from a trumpet. It has encountered the origin of the word “noun” from “nomen” (name) and its relative, the “substantive.” The quiz, an Eastern word, describing a yo-yo like toy in the 18th century led to a purported bet in by James Daly and chalking that same word around Dublin, Ireland. Finally, a look at ancient Greek art.

There is one more instance to mention. Charles Dickens, published a weekly periodical, All the Year Round featuring articles from usually unidentified authors. One of these was a story (in the 19 Sep 1868 issue, Volume 20, page 359) which spins a tale, “Quite a Lost Art,” in which a hermit snatches an ivory bandelore from his visitor, Prince Astolfo, and runs off with it. That bandelore was described as made for a tribute to the Moorish king of Cordova, for the amusement of his children. So that brings in Spain to our perambulations.

And Chimborazo? That’s a currently inactive volcano in the Andes of Equador. Its peak is the point furthest from the center of the earth. I must soon write another article about why “Chimborazo!” makes a wonderful exclamation for the eurekas of encyclopedic explorations. I am grateful to performance artist and story teller John G. Rives for coining such use. Meanwhile, you can see Rives himself in a video explaining his inspiration.

Ian Ellis

Image from drawing for the U.S. patent issued to Haven and Hittrick (1866).

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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