Where do hecklers come from?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 10 2006 5:57 PM

Where Do Hecklers Come From?

The origins of booing.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Yankees pitcher Randy Johnson was razzed on his home turf on Tuesday night as the team fumbled toward an embarrassing 14-3 loss to the Red Sox. The Yankee Stadium crowd booed Johnson as he left the game in the fourth inning. Where does booing come from?

The first written record comes from ancient Greece. At the annual Festival of Dionysia in Athens, playwrights competed to determine whose tragedy was the best. When the democratic reformer Cleisthenes came to power in the sixth century B.C., audience participation came to be regarded as a civic duty. The audience applauded to show its approval and shouted and whistled to show displeasure.

Advertisement

In ancient Rome, jeering was common at the gladiatorial games, where audience participation often determined whether a competitor lived or died. According to the OxfordEnglish Dictionary, the Latin verb explodere means "to drive out by clapping, hiss (a player) off the stage."

While people have expressed displeasure publicly since ancient times, the English word boo was first used in the early 19th century to describe the lowing sound that cattle make. Later in the 1800s, the word came to be used to describe the disapproving cry of crowds. Hoot, another onomatopoeic English word, was used as early as 1225 to describe the same phenomenon. (Ancient Greek and Latin both contain words resembling boo that mean "to cry or shout aloud," though there is no known etymological connection to the modern English word.)

If baseball had European origins, the crowd might have whistled at Randy Johnson. Whistling has long signified disapproval in Europe, as well as in South America.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Ben Zimmer of the University of Pennsylvania and Victoria Pedrick of Georgetown University.

Sonia Smith is an associate editor at Texas Monthly.

  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 29 2014 3:45 PM The Great Writing Vs. Talking Debate Is it harder to be a good writer or a good talker?