Students making their first tour of Georgetown are first directed to Leo’s, then introduced into the cult of Hilltop mythology centuries-old buildings, a legendary basketball team, Bill Clinton. Somewhere over the years, “Hoya Saxa” became part of that arsenal. We chant it, we wear it, we tell the story. We love it.
If you’re unfamiliar, the tale goes something like this: once upon a time, Georgetown boasted a stellar football team, who kicked and pummeled their way to victory every week on Copley lawn. Fans would watch from the stone wall bordering the lawn.
During one game someone started a call and response of “hoya, saxa,” or “what rocks?” the obvious implication being that we, Georgetown, collectively rock. It’s kind of like when high school basketball teams blast Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” or when the Red Sox sing along to “Sweet Caroline.” It was a bonding thing.
However, that tale always seemed a bit on the tall side to me. Yes, if true, our mascot would be a neat product of organic school spirit. Even someone who has yet to experience a Hoya basketball game in person can appreciate the enthusiasm. But I’ve generally assumed the story was invented by Blue and Gray tour guides to round out the Georgetown ethos, in the vein of the Healy seal superstition.
The message just struck me as anachronistic: did students of yore go around encouraging each other to “rock it out?” Well, for the overly enthusiastic Hoya out there, here’s your answer, courtesy of several glasses of wine and an undue fascination with spirit-themed etymology.
By 1894, chanting “Hoya Saxa” at football games was indeed a well-established tradition, noted in Washington Post sports coverage and incorporated into commencement ceremonies. At that point, though, “to rock” hadn’t entered the English lexicon as a verb. It would be a while until Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup wailed “Rock Me Mama,” in 1944. Bill Haley vowed to “Rock around the Clock” in 1956, and Bob Dylan recorded his own “Rock me Mama,” (a.k.a. “Wagon Wheel”) in 1976.
Initially, “to rock” had a distinctly sexual connotation, and that meaning clearly got a lot of play. Unless the Hoya Saxa legend was censored to cover up a salacious locker room episode, the football team was probably not “rocking” anyone at all.
According to the New York Times “On Language” column by Ben Zimmer, “to rock” wouldn’t imply adept finesse until hip-hop artists started to “rock the mic.” The first known recording of the phrase is from a December 1978 concert in Washington Heights, starring Grandmaster Flash and the Four MCs (they hadn’t yet found their furious fifth). On it, one of the MCs, Melle Mel, proclaims, “Like white on rice, I rock the mic.” This byword for coolness would reach the mainstream in the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
Our college yell predates all these connotations. So, even though they apparently dominated their opponents, the soon-to-be-dubbed Hoyas also didn’t rock in the sense of, “Thanks for the cookie, you rock!”
The legend could very well be true, though. The ancient Greek “hoia” often translates to “such great,” or “what great.” Hoya saxa, then, could be remarking on Georgetown’s sturdy defensive line—as in, “Such great rocks!”
It’s also a pun on the stone wall the fans were probably leaning on while they enjoyed the weather and a view of Copley lawn that didn’t include the specter of Lauinger. And now you know. “Hoya Saxa” wasn’t so much asking for an answer as commenting on a quality that has in recent years eluded our football team.
At this point, the chant has taken on a life of its own and emblazoned itself on the Georgetown identity. It reveals our penchant for dead languages (here we have ancient Greek and Latin!), a hallmark of the Jesuit education.
Yes, “Hoya Saxa,” and the attendant anecdote does come off a bit pretentious at times. But, hey, we also got a great “who’s on first” bit with the deal, so who’s complaining?
So, what is a Hoya? With just a hint of smugness, say it with me now: Yes.