An amusing 2007 piece by Roger Ebert, “The Ping of Pong: Mystery Solved,” discusses the origins of the term “ping pong,” mainly quoting variously indignant (“I am very sad to see you trapped by your own ignorance”) and would-be scholarly (“As someone who lives in China and has an obsessive need to correct facts, I need to take issue with Nic Hautamaki’s statement that ping pong is derived from Mandarin”) communications from readers. The two most informative are these:

Arsen Azizyan, New Haven CT: “As a Chinese major in college who has spent two years in Beijing, I am compelled to correct Nic Hautamaki’s linguistic note. The term “ping-pong” is, in fact, an onomatope which originated in England, where the sport was invented (a more anemic alternative, now thankfully lapsed, was “whiff-whaff”). The Chinese word “ping-pang” was borrowed from the English, not vice versa – although Mr. Hautamaki’s confusion is understandable, given that the Chinese invented two new characters for the term, both intentional mutations of a pre-existing, phonetically similar character (pronounced “bing”). If any of your readers had doubts as to the practical usefulness of a college education, surely my letter has helped to reinforce them.’

Jake Jacobs, Singapore: “Your correspondent is somewhat misinformed. “Ping pang qiu” came from English, not the other way around. Parker Brothers trademarked the onomatopoetic term back in 1900, and early usage goes back to 1823. The pivot of the Chinese term is “qiu” which means ball, and the “ping pang” is a phonetic copy of “ping-pong.” Your earlier correspondent’s nose was out of joint because a sport (table tennis) which he takes seriously doesn’t get much respect.”

What bothers me is Jacobs’ assertion that “early usage goes back to 1823”; the OED, in an entry updated as recently as June 2006, does not have any citations before 1900 (Daily Chron. 8 May 6/6 “Our correspondent seems to hope that the unclean, playing Ping-Pong with the clean, will become unpleasantly conscious of his uncleanness and reform”). Anybody know anything about the early history of this “imitative or expressive” term?

Also, I learn from the OED that there is another ping-pong: “Also more fully ping-pong drum. A drum which supplies the melody in a Caribbean steel band; a tenor pan (first citation 1948 E. Leaf Isles of Rhythm viii. 196 “This transformation has occurred through the invention of the ping-pong, a percussion steel drum”).


  1. Google turns up this unrelated but interesting 1866 reference:

    Ping-pong, sb. a jewel fixed to a wire with a long pin at the end, worn in front of the cap, and which shook as the wearer moved. R. Chambers, Traditions of Edinburgh, vol. ii p. 59.

    from Wheatley’s A Dictionary of Reduplicated Words in the English Language (London 1866)

  2. Still undiscovered by the OED!

  3. Crisscross. Ding dong ping pong king kong sing song.
    hip-hop clip-clop flip-flop. Why not.

  4. Jon W: A pin with a pair of swinging jewels like that appears as the setting of either the Urim or the Thummim (the characters not having any way to tell which is which) in John Bellairs’ fourth Johnny Dixon* novel, The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost.

    The case was lined with blue plush, and stuck into the cushion were two old stickpins, the kind that men used to wear in their neckties. One had an opal on the end, and as the professor turned it back and forth in the lamplight, it seemed to change: One moment it was all blue shimmers, the next all fiery orange depths. The other stickpin was less dramatic: It simply held two small, cloudy rock crystal knobs with brass bolts stuck through them. The knobs swung from a little hook on the end of the stickpin.

    The professor carried the case with the pins over closer to the lamp. He pulled them out of the plush and held them up, turning them back and forth. At first Fergie had felt awestruck, but now he was getting doubtful. His grandma had once shown him some pins that looked a great deal like these. But Grandma’s pins were only a hundred years old. How could these pins be the objects that the Israelites and used, thousands of years ago?

    “I know what you’re thinking, Byron,” said the professor as he ran his fingers over the smooth surface of the opal. “And it certainly is true that these doohickeys don’t look terribly ancient. The metal parts of the stickpins are probably not much more than eighty years old, but the two crystal knobs and the opal could be a lot older. They could well be the Urim and the Thummim. We won’t know until we try to use them to make Johnny better—and speaking of which, we had better stop oohing and aahing and get ready to hit the road. Are you ready for an all-night drive back to Duston Heights?”

    In the context of the book, “used to wear in their neckties” is presumably to be reckoned relative to the year in which the story is set, 1951.

    * Bellairs’ three children’s novel series are usually identified by the names of the main preteen protagonists. Each kid is paired with one or more older middle-aged adult friends. However, sometimes a series’s main characters is taken out of action and replaced by a friend; in the passage from The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost, the replacement is Byron “Fergie” Ferguson. Similarly, Lewis’s best friend Rose Rita Pottinger is actually the main character in the third Lewis Barnavelt novel, The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring; and Johnny Dixon’s friend Professor Childermass was previously taken out of action in The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, of which The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost is a direct continuation.

  5. I have a vague recollection that at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Boris Johnson, representing the next host city,* made some highly diplomatic remark about Ping Pong being a British invention (although he neglected to add that as with so many sports and games devised in Britain, the Brits themselves do not excel at it).

    *he was Mayor of London at the time

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    For the relevant Caribbean-music sense of “pan,” see, which does credit Winston “Spree” Simon (1930-1976) with the invention of the “ping-pong” subtype.

  7. Jonathan D says

    Didn’t he mention the name whiff whaff at that point?

  8. John Cowan says

    “Urim, Thummim hit the floor / Priests go dashing for the door / For the cops have caught the crap game in full swing” —a friend of mine, long ago

  9. I first read Hautamaki as hatamaki, which sounded vaguely Japanese, but could find no such word in my dictionaries. There is haramaki and hatameki ‘fluttering motion’. And then I looked again and noticed the u. So it’s Finnish after all, and should be hautamäki ‘burial mound’.

  10. The 1823 date may derive from the following mistake. Google Books still sometimes gives the date of volume 1 even though the quote with “ping pong” is from volume 80. The New-York Observer was established in 1823, but the mention in the 1902 newspaper referred to a new book, A Little Book of Ping Pong Verse; containing also the complete rules for playing the popular game of table-tennis (Boston 1902).

  11. Thanks!

  12. “ping pong” is also the name in the UK Parliament when a bill is sent back and forth between the two houses, each adding amendments and/or objecting to the other’s amendments. The term was official enough to appear in a Research Briefing on Brexit, with the dignified title “European Union (Withdrawal) Bill 2017-19: Ping Pong”. It used to appear on the Parliament website’s bill-status pages, but sadly a recent facelift has abandoned it: compare the stages of the Agriculture Act 2020 16 Jan 2021 snapshot

    Ping Pong: House of Commons 12 October, 2020 12.10.2020

    Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords 20 October, 2020 20.10.2020

    Ping Pong (Minutes of Proceedings): House of Lords 20 October, 2020 20.10.2020

    Ping Pong: House of Commons 4 November, 2020 04.11.2020

    Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords 9 November, 2020 09.11.2020

    Ping Pong (Minutes of Proceedings): House of Lords 9 November, 2020 09.11.2020

    against today

    Consideration of Commons amendments 9 November 2020 Lords

    Consideration of Lords amendments 4 November 2020 Commons

    Consideration of Commons amendments 20 October 2020 Lords

    Consideration of Lords amendments 12 October 2020 Commons

  13. “Ping pong” appeared in several 1800s musical (vocal and instrumental) settings. (One might venture to say that the collocation predated the game.)
    And occasionally otherwise, e.g., in La belle assemblé, or Court and Fashionable Magazine [London] 6.34 (Oct. 1827), in “Wardrobe of the Nations,” 161/2:
    Other minor articles of dress and adornment were, […] a ping-pong—a jewel fixed to a wire with a long pin at the end, worn in front of the cap, and which shook as the bearer moved. It was generally stuck in the cushion, over which the hair was turned in front. Several were frequently worn at once; [….]

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    The emergency vehicle siren “2-tons” is called pin-pon in French (here nee-nah or bee-bah), but I have no idea if this was in use prior to WWI.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    FWIW, the name ba-bu that is now used for the sound of that double horn (tritone interval) is first attested in Danish in 1936.

    Youtube will let you hear a restored 1939 fire truck, but it’s only monotone. Denmark got its first automobile fire pumps just before WWI, but even after the war horse-pulled steam fire engines were still in use. Traffic levels that needed a more penetrating siren probably didn’t exist until well after WWII.

  16. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    The name Ping Pong was registered as a trade mark by Hamley Brothers in 1900. Reportedly on September 20 with registration No. 233177, though I cannot confirm that from official UK records. In the US, Ping-Pong remains a registered trademark. The live registration is no longer the original one, but I can still find the original registration certificate for trade-mark No. 36,854 issued by the US Patent Office to Hamley Brothers on August 6, 1901, which states:

    Our trade-mark consists of the arbitrary word “Ping-Pong,”…

    This US trade-mark was assigned to Parker Brothers, who re-registered trade-mark No. 245,200 on August 7, 1928, again stating:

    The trade-mark comprises the arbitrarily coined words “Ping-Pong.” The trade-mark has been continuously used and applied to said goods in applicant’s business and that of its predecessors, Hamley Brothers, of London, England, since about August 1900.

    The registration was republished as trade-mark No. 520,270 on January 24, 1950. The trademark now belongs to Indian Industries, which keeps renewing it every ten years.

    This means that lawyers and bureaucrats in both the British Empire and the United States have been convinced that nobody called table tennis “ping pong” until Hamley Brothers had the bright idea of doing so in August 1900.

    Lawyers and bureaucrats may be fooled by cunning businessmen, but that seems unlikely in this case. Rivals wouldn’t have labeled their table-tennis set “Whiff-Whaff” if instead they could have voided the Ping-Pong trademark as generic. Moreover, an image search confirms that the first Hamley sets were labeled “Ping-Pong or Gossima” with both the new trademark and the infelicitous older one registered by their manufacturing partner J. Jaques & Son, Ltd.

  17. John Cowan says

    Whiff-whaff actually sounds felicitous to me, as it reflects the sound of the ball whizzing through the air. Its association with riffraff, not so good.

  18. David Marjanović says

    To me it sounds exactly like Johnson’s kind of humour.


    Tatü! Tata!

    (The horns of Spanish trucks apparently make PABÚ PABÚÚÚÚÚ, though.)

  19. John Cowan says

    emergency vehicle siren

    As one might expect, the 18,000 police forces in the U.S. don’t agree on which sound to use, and still less the 30,000 fire departments. Such is life in a continent-sized empire.

  20. According to the late lamented WorldWide Words, the original name was Whiff-Waff (with only one ‘h’). There’s a neat description at
    It was registered as a trademark by the British manufacturer Slazenger on 31 December 1900. It looks a lot like a copy of an earlier game Gossima from 1891.

  21. the late lamented WorldWide Words
    Huh, for a moment you made me think that Michael Quinion had died or that his site was gone. The site, at least, is still there, even if he stopped adding material and updating.

  22. Yes – the site is still there, but hasn’t seen any new posts since 2017 or so. That newsletter was one of the first list mailing lists I subscribed to, back in the late 90’s.

  23. I also was a subscriber, for about 15 years until he stopped posting. Reading his posts was one of my regular weekend pleasures.

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