What it means to 'root' for the home team

Does "rooting" for a sports team have to do with the underground parts of plants? Yes, etymology suggests – and pigs may be involved, too.


Which team do you root for? It’s a strange question, when you think about it. What does supporting a sports team have to do with the underground parts of plants, fundamental causes, poking around, or any of the other things the word root can mean, as a noun or verb?

A prominent folk etymology takes its cue from the 1908 song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Its famous chorus contains the lines “Let me root, root, root for the home team / If they don’t win it’s a shame,” linking the idea of cheering for one’s team to that of home, the place where a person “has roots.” 

Or perhaps the fan is “rooted” to the team itself, as Paul Dickson reports in his “Baseball Dictionary”: People popularly believe that “the term comes from the notion of a fan who is so close to his or her team that he or she is ‘rooted’ to it.” 

These explanations make a lot of intuitive sense, but are unlikely to be true.

In his “Studies in Slang,” etymologist Gerald Cohen proposed instead that the definition of root meaning “to cheer” comes from the rooting – digging up the ground in search of food – done by pigs and other animals. 

An 1889 New York newspaper makes this connection, describing how a fan “rooted more energetically and with twice the freedom of a Yorkshire porker.” As the quote reveals, rooting was conceived of as a highly physical activity when it was first used this way in the 1880s. 

Mr. Cohen speculates that rooting would have involved clapping and stomping the feet – perhaps with so much force “that one is visualized as digging a hole.”

Merriam-Webster suggests that our term comes not from digging done by pigs but from loud mooing done by cattle. In dialects in the north of Britain and in Ireland, the verb rout (often pronounced so as to be indistinguishable from “root”) refers to making a lot of noise – such as a bull bellowing, as well as, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a person crying out, roaring, or shouting. 

Today you can root for a team, or for a person, quietly at home, without any cheering or stomping at all – the word can simply mean “support” or “hope for the success of something.” 

Unless, that is, your home is in Australia or New Zealand, where root is an indelicate slang word. 

There, you’d say, “I barrack for Geelong” (an Aussie rules football team) or “Her only fault is that she barracks for the All Blacks” (the New Zealand national rugby team). 

Barrack has nothing to do with pigs, cattle, or military barracks, for that matter. It’s simply another word meaning “to root for,” or “cheer on,” your team.    

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