Pok-ta-pok, according to the OED, is “the Maya name of the sacred ball game of Middle America, called tlachtli by the Aztecs, which was played on a court as a religious ritual. The object of the game was to knock a rubber ball through a stone ring, using only the hips, knees, and elbows.” Now, when I ran across this entry, it struck me forcibly because I recently got Long Hidden: The Olmec Series, a (superb) new CD by my favorite living bassist, William Parker (review), and one of the longer tracks is called “Pok-a-Tok,” about which Parker says “Pok-a-Tok is an Olmec ballgame whose object is to knock a four and a half pound rubber ball through a small ring using only the elbows, wrist, and hips.” At first I thought Parker simply got the name wrong (he’s a musician, not a linguist, as is shown by his absurd statement that “the Olmec spoke a dialect of the Manding language”), but when I googled it I got a large number of hits, though not nearly as many as for pok-ta-pok. So does anyone know if there is any basis for the variation—for instance, is one the Maya form and the other the Olmec—or is “pok-a-tok” simply a widespread error? And can the word be analyzed? The OED says simply “[Maya].”

Update. Jesse Sheidlower, Editor-at-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, informs me that the revised OED entry for this term explains that the form pok-ta-pok is itself an error; the correct word in Yucatec Maya is actually pokolpok, and the ta- form is an error introduced by Frans Blom in 1932 and repeated throughout the literature. The classical Maya name for the game was pitz.

Further update. The September 2006 quarterly update of the OED just came out, and they’ve put the revised entry (dated June 2006) online. The etymology now reads:

[Alteration of, or error for, Yucatec Maya pokolpok (1877 in J. PIO PEREZ, Diccionario de la lengua Maya).
  Blom states (p. 497 of the article cited in quot. 1932) that he adopted the word to signify the game after consulting Juan Martinez Hernandez ‘the outstanding Maya linguist of today’. This inaccurate name remained current for some time. The classical Maya name was pitz.]


  1. The claim that the Olmecs spoke a Manding language isn’t just an isolated error. The somewhat African appearance of the people depicted in Olmec sculpture led to the idea that the Olmecs came from Africa. Mainstream scholars don’t take this seriously – it isn’t supported by linguistic, archaeological, or genetic evidence – but there are some crank “scholars” who continue to push this idea and it seems to have a good bit of support in “Afrocentric history” circles. For obscure reasons these people claim that the Olmecs are related specifically to Manding speakers.

  2. Onomatopoeia, perhaps?

  3. Bill: Yeah, I’m aware of the whole Afrocentric mess; it’s sad that after the yeoman work men like WEB Du Bois did establishing the facts of African history, people still feel the need for such far-fetched myths.
    Conrad: Sure, it sounds like onomatopoeia, but I’d love to hear from a Mayanist who actually knows.

  4. I’m no Mayanist, but all my semi-popular books agree with pok-ta-pok for Maya and tlachtli for Aztec and besides mentioning the Toltecs and Olmecs, don’t give any more words. Note that these are words for the ballcourt and not (necessarily) the game.
    Blood of Kings (1986), which has a chapter on the Ballgame, references Theodore Stern, The Rubber-Ball Games of the Americas (1948).
    According to a more recent edition of Dennis Tedlock’s translation of Popul Vuh, there’s Ted J J Leyenaar & Lee Allen Parsons, Ulama : the Ballgame of the Mayas and Aztecs (1988). OCLC says there’s a copy out in Williamstown.
    The Wikipedia articles Mesoamerican ballgame (which says poc-ta-tok) and Ulama game don’t reference that, but do mention some others. And do link to a page that Prof. Leyenaar has something to do with.

  5. Ian Myles Slater says

    I seem to have been going the same route as MMcM, with only slightly different results. This problem is probably going to need some sorting out by the truly well-informed.
    The name indeed seems, on reputable authority, to be Pok-ta-pok, in one or more Mayan languages (but which?).
    I was under the impression that I had the information available, but wound up going in circles when I tried to find it. Citations of Frans Blom’s old article “The Maya Ball-Game ‘Pok-ta-pok,’ called Tlachtli by the Aztecs” (Middle American Research Series Publications 4, 1932) sometimes involve the question of whether the games should in fact be identified, but don’t address his nomenclature. (Except to point out, as MMcM has already indicated, that at least the Aztec name would seem to refer to the ball-court itself, not what was done in it.)
    This seems to be the only indexed reference to the word in the “Bibliografa Mesoamericana” database; see http://research.famsi.org/mesobib_list.php?_allSearch=Pok-ta-pok
    “Ulama” gets thirteen hits, but doesn’t seem to be associated with the Maya region, but other parts of Mexico (http://research.famsi.org/mesobib_list.php?_allSearch=ulama )
    “The Royal Ball Game of the Ancient Maya: An Epigrapher’s View,” by Alexandre Tokovinine (an article available, with a comment by Sam Edgerton and a repy, at http://www.mayavase.com/alex/alexballgame.html), seems to discuss the evidence without offering a specific name for the event in any living Mayan language; in fact, the lack of literary evidence from the post-conquest era is a starting point for reconsidering current thinking.
    In the inscriptions discussed there, the ancient term for the game seemed to me to be “pitsil,” but I may be confusing this with the word for “player.”
    So far as I can tell, the sixteen papers collected in Scarborough and Wilcox, “The Mesoamerican Ballgame” (University of Arizona, 1991) deal with Mayan names for some of the apparatus, but not for the whole ball-court, or the game (or games) as a whole. The same seems to be true for other volumes I have at hand, Schele and Miller’s “The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art” (1986) and Miller and Martin, “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya” (2004). (Other books I would have liked to consult are in storage.)
    I may have missed (in both my copy and using Amazon’s Search Inside) finding Dennis Tedlock’s most recent views in the revised and expanded version of his translation of “Popol Vuh” (1996). (I would be delighted to know that I missed something!)

  6. Like I said, pretty much every book I have on Mesoamerica has something about the ball game. For instance, apparently it’s called yuhuasi cotota in Mixtec. Since that gets no web hits, it’s probably obsolete orthography (from here).
    I stopped by the BPL and read the articles in The sport of life and death : the Mesoamerican ballgame (2001), the newest thing they had, looking in particular for native terminology. Summary: nothing Olmec, lots of Aztec, some Maya.
    In Nahuatl, olli is ‘rubber’, ollin is ‘movement’. [teo]tlachtli is ‘ballcourt’. ullamaliztli is the name of the game, from ullama ‘ball-game’ in general + ulli ‘rubber’. (There’s more morphology there than I get, but that’s what Leyenaar says, as does die Wikipedia.)
    There is a Maya glyph pitzal for playing the game and ta pitzal is the court. I don’t have to wait for Unicode to support the glyph here; you can see it half-way down this page or on the German Wikipedia page for Mesoamerikanisches Ballspiel.
    So, now I am going to do some guessing. We know comparatively little about the Olmec language, written or spoken. (Although this is gradually improving.) For instance, we don’t know what the Olmecs called themselves. Olmec is ‘rubber people’ in Nahuatl (same first root as above; second as in all the various -ec peoples around there), because they discovered it. And hence invented this game. But we don’t know what they called the game.
    pok-ta-pok, pok-a-tok, poc-ta-tok, and pi-tzi-something are all Maya, the cross-product of varying times and dialects and transliteration schemes and maybe word forms (game vs. court vs. player).
    But like I said, mostly guesses.

  7. My post crossed Ian’s in midstream, in case the timestamps don’t make that clear.
    I should also note as further confirmation of the wealth of interest in the ball game, by the peoples then and scholars now, that there is a second book beside the one Ian found called Mesoamerican Ballgame published in 1991, but in Leiden, with what looks to be an informative paper on the Mayan glyphs. (Ref: Boot, Eric 1991 “The Maya Ball game, as Referred to in Hieroglyphic Writing”. In: Mesoamerican Ballgame. Gerard W. van Bussel, Paul L. F. van Dongen, and Ted J. J. Leyenaar, eds.: 233-244. Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden.) The BPL also had the first but not this second, but I was running out of time.

  8. One more and then I’ll wait for someone who actually knows something.
    Apparently there’s a golf course in Cancún called Pok-Ta-Pok. (Which seems ironic, since “played with ball” is pretty much all there is in common.) This page says, “El principal campo de golf de Cancún se encuentra en Pok-Ta-Pok, una palabra maya que significa ‘isla’. Pok-Ta-Pok fue diseñado por Robert Trent Jones y es un campo de golf con un par de 72.” I’m going to bet that they were misinformed.

  9. Tim May says

    This Preliminary Classic Maya – English / English – Classic Maya Vocabulary of Hieroglyphic Readings includes the following ballgame-related entries:
    ballcourt (n): alaw, halab’, halaw
    ballgame (n): pitz
    ballplayer (n): pitzal
    ballplaying (adj): pitzil
    game ball(n): ol
    play ball(v): pitzah-, pitzih-

  10. Ian Myles Slater says

    The update certainly explains why on-line searches were going in circles! And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of material using the correct form on-line, either.
    But for some actual examples of pokol and pokolpok, and related words, see “Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language
    Update posted 10-28-03,” at http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/p/po_pokyah.htm

  11. Here’s the entry for pokolpok:
    Pokol pok sfm) Pokol pok; pok mal pok: pelotear o jugar a la pelota, juego de pelota.
    vns) Jugar a la pelota: pokol pok, pok yah.
    rb142.007 he tun bacin chee pitzil pitz teex to,
    pokol pok teex to
    rb185.005 zam in pokol pokte; zam in pitzil pitzte

  12. The entry online at oed.com is the same as the printed one that LH quoted. Is there a publication delay? Or do libraries subscribe to a more stable site? Or is the change still being vetted? Just as a matter of interest, since LH’s question has been answered.

  13. Oops. FAQ. It’s updated quarterly.

  14. Jody Tresidder says

    On the slightly blushing grounds that if you never ask..the assumption, as far as I know, is that “pok-ta-pok” was played with the aim of passing the ball through the suspended stone hoop? (Certainly, modern cultural arts staged recreations of the ancient game use the stone circle as a sideways basketball hoop). Yet at Chichen Itza, home of the excavated mother of all pok-ta-pok courts, this ignorant visitor thought it more likely, surely, that the stone hoops were used as permanent anchors for a rope; with maybe a banner flung over it – so the game would have been more like volleyball?
    There are so many details recommending the volleyball theory over the sideways basketball hoop theory that I assume it MUST be wrong for a reason? Somewhere there must be specific references to the “goal” function of the stone hoops? (The tourist information boards at Chichen Itza are notoriously underwhelming).

  15. Well, the Mesoamerican ballgame, under various names, was still being played at the time of the Conquest, so we have descriptions of the rules by Spanish and Aztec chroniclers who’d seen play themselves.
    From the chapter in The Blood of Kings mentioned my MMcM and Ian above:

    … The play was fairly straightforward:teams of one to four players competed to control the ball without touching it with their hands and to make contact with markers or rings. The players took positions like modern soccer players when they controlled the ball with the lower leg or upper arm. To keep the ball from hitting the ground they lunged in front of it, intercepting it with arm, waist or thigh. Since thighs, torso and arms took the brunt of the blows, players wore small protective garments on their arms and legs. At midbody they wore thick, heavy deflectors called yokes that were also the player’s most important instrument to control and direct the ball.

    The markers to which players launched the ball took various forms in different cultures and areas. At the time of the Conquest, the markers were frequently small stone rings tenoned into walls of ballcourts at right angles to the ground so that the ball could only enter the ring on a strong horizontal trajectory. The angle of the ring, the weight of the ball and the rules for handling it made the game considerably more difficult than modern basketball. The ring tended to deflect the ball rather than guide its entry as a hoop parallel to the ground does; the weight of the ball makes gravity an important component of play; and the relative sizes of the ball and goal – the goal only slightly larger than the ball – increased the difficulty of scoring. At the time of the Conquest, the ball was generally about eight inches in diameter; it was solid and heavy, rather like the modern medicine ball and unlike a hollow basketball, which is much lighter although of similar size. According to some Aztec accounts, even the most skilled and legendary players rarely managed to score direct points by passing the ball through the rings, but players could score points by making contact with the rings or by directing the ball into a goal area of the court.

    (It sounds almost impossible to me, but I was never much into sports.) Presumably there was some variation in the rules across time and space, but the first-hand accounts of the Postclassic game probably give us a pretty good idea.
    Regarding the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza, it’s been suggested that it was too large to actually play there by any rules, and that it was rather some kind of ritual space.

  16. Jody Tresidder says

    Tim May,
    Thanks so much for your astoundingly informative and courteous reply. I thought I’d be jolly lucky to get a halfway decent lead – instead you supply an impeccable reference and highly pertinent comment. Really, this has made my weekend – thank you again.

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  18. David Marjanović says

    O hai, kitteh!

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