I was checking out the strange-looking London Olympics mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, today and got to wondering about the word “mascot.” I was surprised by what I found, especially as a fan of opera.
What do mascots have to do with opera, you ask? Well, it seems the word comes directly from an opera – an operetta, actually – entitled “La Mascotte” by the largely forgotten French composer Edmond Audran. I had never heard of this one, as it’s a bit obscure and not even listed in my Grove Book of Operas, the standard reference. I also had trouble tracking down a recording of it. The opera is about a farm girl who is believed to bring good luck to whoever she belongs to, as long as she remains a virgin (it’s a French comic opera, so you can imagine the scenarios . . .) It was quite popular in its day – which was the late 1800s – and led to the use of the Anglicized word “mascot” to mean something that brings good luck, which is what mascots were originally intended to do for sports teams.
The “mascotte” in the title is derived from a French slang term for witch, “masco.” The operetta is quite tuneful and lighthearted, not unlike the work of Offenbach– I’m listening to it now, a welcome discovery thanks to my curiosity about a word.