Mascot Mania: Paint Me Like One Of your French Mascottes

Written By Sarah Gibson

I get kind of giddy when I’m referred to as “the mascot lady.” I don’t know why, but it feels nice to be the expert on something, no matter how niche. A few weeks ago, my friend texted me because his dad wanted to know where the word “Mascot” came from. I gave a very quick, to the point answer, but I thought that would be a fun deep dive to take in this week’s column. 

The earliest use of the word was in French, and it was spelled “Mascotte.”  Many believe that it was derivative of the phrase “Masco,” which meant ‘sorceress or witch.’ The word “mascotte” popped up around 1867, and it meant “good luck charm,” referring to any inanimate object in the home which may bring luck. In 1880, the composer Edmond Audran wrote “La Mascotte,” an opera which helped to popularize the word. By 1881, it had made its way to the English vernacular. 

Mascots in sports showed up around the late 19th, early 20th century. They were originally either animals or children. The child trend actually stayed popular in places like the UK, but at the time, they were just good luck charm ‘Mascottes’ in the old world sense. One really fun example of this is John the Orangeman, a staple of Harvard University games in the late 19th century. He became a sort of mascot by selling fruit to students at football games at a time when fruit was a rarity. These mascots provide wonderful stories, but then again, these are far from the wild, colorful people in suits that we are used to seeing at sports games today. To talk about sports mascots as we know them, as suited, cartoony wonders, we must first talk about The Chicken. 

The San Diego Chicken, or KGB Chicken, was the first iteration of sports mascots as we currently recognize them. The Chicken was originally a cartoon character designed for a TV commercial for KGB-FM radio. 20-year-old journalism student Ted Giannoulas was hired to wear a chicken suit and do promotional things for the radio station, like passing out Easter eggs to children at the San Diego Zoo. Somehow, Giannoulas approached the front office of the San Diego Padres and was allowed to wander the stands during games for free. Eventually, he was brought out onto the field, doing silly, classic mascot antics, and the crowd’s adoration of him grew. Once he was fired and someone else was put in the suit, the crowd would actually boo the Chicken, knowing it wasn’t Giannoulas.

 He was not officially representative of the sports team, but without his antics, sports teams wouldn’t have gotten the idea to start making similar mascots for their teams, most notably, one of the first mascots to follow The Chicken’s claw-prints, and one of the best mascots to exist to this day: The Philly Phanatic. After the Phanatic comes around, we start getting into early sports mascot history, which I do not have the space for. Maybe I’ll have to write another piece discussing how sports mascots were first implemented, followed by the mascot craze days of the 80s. But even then, that’s a lot. The Phanatic’s history with lawsuits and copyright surrounding its fruition is enough to be its own Mascot Mania topic. 

Well hey, that gives me an idea.