Polo / Marco Polo

Those tiny screams you hear are my brain cells dying.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve started to wonder what the famous explorer Marco Polo has to do with children’s water games in US. I’ve seen several American TV shows where children or sometimes childlike adults lounge or play around a pool shouting “Marco” and some other answers “Polo.” What gives? — Topi Linkala, Finland.

That’s a darn good question. I tend to fall behind in my knowledge of what the childlike adults around here are up to, probably because I don’t watch enough TV, although I do my best. I even tried watching parts of the Super Bowl this year. But there must have been something wrong with the TV, because what I saw was insanely boring, just a bunch of guys in Spandex pedal-pushers running in circles and falling down. If those helmets are intended to prevent brain damage, they really ought to consider giving them to the spectators.

You probably didn’t realize this when you asked it, but there are actually three parts to your question, which are are Marco Polo, polo, and Marco Polo again.

Marco Polo was, of course, a famous traveler, born in Venice, who, with his father and uncle, wandered through Asia, eventually, in 1275, ending up in China in the court of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, with whom he became best buds. Upon his return to Venice twenty years later, Marco Polo wound up in jail in Genoa, where his dictated his account of his voyages. Published as “The Travels of Marco Polo,” the book was enormously popular and supposedly inspired Christopher Columbus to light out for Asia.

There is, however, absolutely no connection between Marco Polo and “polo,” a game played by teams on horseback, the object being to hit a small ball through the other team’s goal with a long-handled mallet. Invented in China but developed in Persia, polo is considered the quintessential ruling-class sport (which is why designer Ralph Lauren picked “Polo” as his brand), but it’s actually a very exciting game. The word “polo” comes from the Balti Tibetan word “polo” meaning “ball,” and first appeared in English when the game arrived in England in the late 19th century. This “polo” is relevant to your question because there is a related game called “water polo,” played with a much larger ball in swimming pools. Water polo does not involve horses but would, no doubt, be more interesting if it did.

“Water polo” is not, however, the source of the mysterious “Marco-Polo” call-and-response you have seen on TV. That is part of an entirely different pool game called, for reasons no one has ever plausibly explained, “Marco Polo,” essentially a very wet version of Blind Man’s Buff. There is no ball involved. The person who is deemed “It” closes his or her eyes and calls out “Marco,” to which the other players must reply “Polo,” thus giving auditory clues as to their locations in the pool. “It” then attempts to catch and touch one of them, whereupon a new “It” is born and the game continues until the entire company is overcome by gnawing existential dread and lights out for Asia. Or something.

So there you have it. Someone, somewhere, actually invented a game more insipid than football. Might be fun to try it with horses, though.

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