June 6th is National Yo-Yo Day. It also happens to be the birthday of Donald Duncan, who started making yo-yos in the 1930s.
A toy made of string and either wood or plastic from the pre-video game era, the yo-yo delighted generations of children who were otherwise merely waiting around for the invention of the smartphone. And while the toy is a fine thing to celebrate, we thought it'd be fun to take a look at the word and what is has come to mean.
Although the etymology of yo-yo is a little unclear, the word is likely either an Ilocano (a language of the Philippines) or Tagalog word, and may mean "return." Yo-yos were used as weapons in ancient Greece, but for most of their history they have been used as toys. In French, the yo-yo was known as a bandalore, which may be an abbreviated form of the phrase "string of the breeze". The name Yo-Yo was registered as a trademark in 1932 by Donald Duncan, but later the courts decided that it was too commonly used to be trademarked.
While the physical yo-yo is a fine things to celebrate, the figurative meanings associated with the toy are just as worthy of examination.
In his novel V., Thomas Pynchon describes one of his main characters, Benny Profane, "a schlemihl and human yo-yo." Yo-yos, with their freewheeling speed, provide the illusion of breaking free from terrestrial forces. They symbolize thumbing one's nose at gravity, but in the end the toy always falls prey to earth-bound forces that pull it back. In other words, the perfect metaphor for something that gets yanked back to where it started.
Today, "to yo-yo" is a metaphor for falling back into old habits, in the same old place you started. In a more innocent time, calling someone a yo-yo was an insult, equivalent to calling them a lunkhead or a moron. You don't have to be a yo-yo to behave like a Yo-Yo — to get into a repetitious rut you can't escape — but it helps.
Here's a look at some of the words we use to describe falling back into old habits.
Recidivism is a term used to describe repeatedly committing criminal or sinful acts. One of the reasons many prison systems are called "The Department of Corrections" is to help people improve themselves and prevent recidivism. English adapted this word from French, which took it from Latin recidivare, "to relapse into sin."
Relapse is another appropriate word for falling back into patterns like a yo-yo, if one thinks of bad behavior as a kind of illness. Although technically it means "fall into a former state," one would never say that someone "relapsed into happiness," or that the former millionaire who lost it all and then regained it "relapsed into a fortune." It is the "fall" part of the definition that is crucial here — someone who relapses is at a lower state than they were, either physically or morally. Relapse comes from Latin relabi "slip back, slide back, sink back". This etymology provides a good sense of how a relapse, like going off a diet and eating a huge meal, feels like something that happens to you rather than something you make happen. No one intends to slip, just like no one intends to relapse.
More of a conscious choice than sliding down the slippery slope of relapse, renege is a verb meaning to "deny, renounce, abandon." To renege on a former promise or ambition is an important component of what sets one up for a yo-yo kind of life — to come tantalizingly close to something before you snatch it back or it gets away from you, just like the the yo-yo that collapses in your lap, a pile of spool and string. Renege is from Latin negare, which meant "refuse."
apogee, perigee and retrograde
Just like the toy, there are thrilling highs associated with yo-yoing in life — the back and forth of the attempt and the (partial) success. As mentioned above, a circling, spinning yo-yo resembles a planet moving around the sun, or the moon orbiting around Earth, and celestial vocabulary seems most appropriate to describe it. Apogee refers to the point where the object is farthest from the thing it orbits around, and perigee is when it is closest to that object in its orbit. Another celestial word appropriate for the world of yo-yoing bodies is the term for moving in an orbit that is backwards in relation to everything else in orbit, retrograde. This word for going backwards metaphorically implies a reversal or lack of progress.
This National Yo-Yo Day, after you've practiced your "walk the dog" and are untangling the string, spend some time thinking about what the word yo-yo has come to mean. And if you realize you're prone to yo-yoing yourself, let's hope you have one more good (yo-yo) trick up your sleeve and can break the cycle, whatever that may be.
Check out the complete list: Spinnin' Around
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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