Our College Yell
In 1898, a young professor wrote 21 simple, oft-repeated words and set them to an old Latin hymn, crafting one of our most treasured Badger traditions: “Varsity.”
We might never know exactly what inspired Henry Dyke Sleeper to compose our alma mater, but we can try to decode its meaning, particularly the origin of the college yell, “U-rah-rah! Wisconsin!”
One rumor suggests that it’s a mondegreen of the phrase “You Are Our Wisconsin.” (Go ahead and sound it out; it’s not too far-fetched.) It’s also been said “U-Rah” derives from the U.S. Marines’ battle cry “Ooh Rah,” though that wasn’t used until decades later.
It’s more likely our “U-Rah-Rah” is a variation of cheers heard on dozens of campuses at the time, the most famous being Princeton’s “locomotive.”
In the same year that Sleeper wrote “Varsity,” a University of Minnesota fan became the country’s first cheerleader when he led fellow Gophers in a chant: “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” Those fans were miserable after a walloping by Wisconsin the week prior, we’re happy to say, and it’s very likely we swapped syllables with our neighboring state.
The word “rah” itself is a variation on hurrah or huzzah, a phrase used in military settings as far back as the 16th century.
The earliest references to UW’s cheer begin in the late 1800s. In the 1893 edition of Badger yearbook, there’s an account of baseball fans shouting “U-Rah-Rah Wis-con-sin” on a train to an away game. The College Yell first appeared in the 1897 Badger:
Wait. Where did that tiger come from? There are conflicting stories about the origin of “three cheers and a tiger,” the most common involving an 1840s politician literally poking a caged tiger during a speech to rile up his audience. It’s important to note that you don’t say the word tiger; it’s a cue to emit a low growl, similar to that of cartoon spokescat Tony the Tiger.
The university seems to have ditched the growl in the 1920s, but “U-Rah-Rah!” has survived more than a century later. We’d be too choked up to say much else during the “Varsity” arm wave.