What a great word varsity used to be!
Nowadays it’s used only in a pedestrian way, to designate the alpha athletic team in any particular sport at a school, college, or university.
But it was originally a cool slang word, a mid-19th century abbreviation for “university” with a smart twist on the vowel. It was properly spelled ’varsity back then, the apostrophe acknowledging it as a contraction. Apparently it began at Oxford and Cambridge, but it quickly hopped the pond to be adopted at American institutions of higher learning.
And in the United States a century ago, when colleges were mostly defined to the public by their athletic teams (imagine that!), it’s easy to see how university team became varsity team became varsity. It was a time when more people read adventure stories about football heroes in college than actually went to college. And the stories they read revealed that a university was a sponsor for a football (sometimes baseball) team, with a few distractions on the side like parties, deans, and classes. What mattered for a young hero was earning a place on the varsity. So there were stories like “The Varsity Voodoo” in a 1929 issue of Boys’ Life:
“But they’re not a second team,” protested Roy. “They’re the varsity.”
He pronounced varsity as though it were something sacred and holy.
Two of my favorite songs use varsity in the old sense. One (to the tune of “Bicycle Built for Two”) is about the University of Chicago, newly formed in 1891:
John D. Rockefeller
Wonderful man is he,
Gives all his spare change to the U. of C.
He keeps the ball a rolling
In our great Varsity;
He pays Doctor Harper
To help us grow sharper,
To the glory of U. of C.
And the other is the “Varsity Drag,” from the 1927 musical Good News:
We’ve always thought
Knowledge is naught,
We should be taught to dance,
Right here at Tait
We’re up to date,
We teach a great new dance,
Don’t think that I brag,
I speak of the drag.
Why should a sheikh
learn how to speak
Latin and Greek badly?
Give him a neat
Say it with feet gladly!
First lesson right now,
You’ll love it and how you’ll love it:
Here is the drag, see how it goes,
Down on the heels, up on the toes,
That’s the way to do the Varsity Drag,
Hotter than hot, newer than new,
Meaner than mean, bluer than blue,
Gets as much applause as waving the flag!
You can pass many a class,
Whether you’re dumb or wise,
If you’ll all answer the call
when your professor cries:
“Everybody down on the heels, up on the toes,
Stay after school and learn how it goes,
Everybody do the varsity drag!”
Yes, three cheers for varsity, I say. And here are a dozen of them, from a 1910 collection of American cheers by the World Almanac:
Boston U. – “Boston, Boston, B- B- B-Boston, ’Varsity, ’Varsity, Rah! Rah! Rah!”
Dakota Wesleyan University – “Hey! Ho! Whee! Ki! Yi! Ye! D. U. Varsity Zip Boom! Rah! Rah! Rah!”
Miama University – “Miami, Yip Yip! Miami U Ro Miami, Miami, Ho Hang Ho, Miami, Eureka, Sis Boom Bah, Miami ’Varsity, Rah, Rah, Rah!”
U of Alabama – “Hulla ba loo, ray! ray! Hulla ba loo, ray! ray! Hooray! Hooray! Varsity, Varsity, U. of A. U. of A. Rah, rah! U. of A. Rah, rah! Hoorah, hoorah, Old Alabama!”
U. of Arkansas – “Boom-alacka, Boom-alacka, wah who ray, Razzle-dazzle, Hobble-gobble, U. of A., Hi-ip, Ti-ip, rah-rah-rah, Ozark, Ozark, Sis, Boom, Bah, Varsity, Varsity, Room-a-la, Ra, Cardinal, Cardlina, U. of A.”
U. of Cincinnati – “Hella, Hella, Hellagan! Hella, Hella, Ha! Cincinnati Varsity, Rah! Rah! Rah!”
U. of Minnesota – “Rah, rah, rah, Ski-U-mah – hoorah! hooorah! Varsity! – Varsity! Minne-so-ta!”
U. of Mississippi – “Oxford Rah! Oxford Rah! ’Varsity, ’Varsity, Rah! Rah! Rah! Oxford Rah! Oxford Rah! ’Varsity, ’Varsity, Rah! Rah! Rah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Rah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Rah! Mississippi!”
U. of North Carolina – “Yackety yack Hooray hooray! (twice) Carolina Varsity Boom Rah, Boom Rah, Car-o-li-na!”