The word mascot is believed to have originated from the Medieval Latin masca ‘mask, specter, nightmare’. The term entered Old French as the verb mascurer and a meaning of ‘to black, cover the face), to later develop a meaning synonymous to ‘a witch, a sorcery’ and in the 1223 Narbonnese manuscript to be recorded as mascotto ‘enchantment, bewitchment in gambling’.
By the mid 1800s mascotte has deeply rooted in the French gambling slang to name a talisman that brings good luck and fortune to players. And the broader meaning and powers of mascots to be associated with inanimate objects (as opposed to nowadays) such as, for example, the figureheads on sailing ships.
It was the French opera La Mascotte, written by Edmond Audran in 1880, to popularize the term to the mainstream. The opera is about an Italian farmer, cursed by bad luck, and a virgin farmer girl, Bettina, supposed to bring luck to whoever is fortunate to “possess” her (a living mascot) for as long as she stays virgin.
La Mascotte made its debut in England with Henry Brougham Farnie and Robert Reece’s adaptation, performed in a toned-down translation from 1881, and the term made its good fortune bringing premier in English written records: ”Ah! bless their lot whom fate shall send A true Mascotte, a fairy friend!.. Luck’s his for ever!”
The word has almost instantly entered the vocabulary of American baseball, with an 1883 issue of The Sporting Life becoming one of the first sources to report on a boy, named Chic, considered by the players as a good luck charm. 3 years later, The Sporting Life again connected the word to a boy with luck-bringing qualities: “Little Nick is the luckiest man in the country, and is certainly the Browns’ mascott,” followed by the first time the modern spelling was used in a sport context in the New York Times report on a boy named Charle Gallagher “who is guaranteed to possess all the magic charms of a genuine mascot.”
In the early part of the 20th century, sport mascots were either real live animals (mostly predators expected to strike fear into the hearts of the opponents) or children, but it all changed in the late 1950s with the invention of the Muppets, beginning with Kermit the Frog.
Marketers quickly realized the great potential of the transformation of live animals and two-dimensional fantasy mascots into three-dimensional muppets who can physically interact with the audience and quickly encouraged sports entities to create their own mascots to be used as a marketing and public relations tool.
One of the first mascots to be associated with a major sporting competition was the World Cup Willie (a lion wearing a Union Flag jersey with the words “WORLD CUP”), the mascot for the England 1966 FIFA World Cup.
And this year, FIFA World Cup’s good luck is entrusted to Zabivaka, a wolf with brown and white fur, wearing orange glasses (seen by many as ski-goggles but officially presented as sport goggles to protect his eyes as he runs way too fast) and a T-shirt with the words “RUSSIA 2018”. The mascot’s name translates from Russian as ‘the one who scores’, and now the world is excited to see who will be the biggest Zabivaka of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.