Whenever you hear someone say “Marco,” it probably takes everything in your power to suppress your lizard brain and not scream “Polo” from the other side of the park. Honestly it’s a habit that we’re not even sure where we picked up, it just seems like something that everyone picks up. So as a collective, where did we pick it up? Why do we yell “Marco Polo”?
Who even was Marco Polo?
Marco Emilio Polo was a Venetian guy who’s probably known for going along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. He was also a writer, and his stories are recorded in The Travels of Marco Polo, published at some point in the 1300s. The travelog was written by Rustichello da Pisa, mostly from accounts Polo gave him while the two were imprisoned in Genoa.
Whether or not these stories are accurate is up for debate (and has been since its publication), even to the point where some scholars call Polo going to China in the first place into question. A good chunk of details Polo recounts have been verified though. For example, he does accurately recount the production of salt and the way the Yuan era salt monopoly functioned. Either way, Polo’s stories were the first time a European left behind a detailed account of their time in Asia and laid the foundation Westerners would use when engaging with Asia for some time.
Christopher Columbus was inspired by Polo’s stories and wanted to head East himself. He ended up in America, and we know how that went. Oh, also Marco Polo didn’t bring pasta in from China. Italy already had it before Polo ever left for Asia.
So why are we yelling his name?
Well it turns out the game that shares Marco Polo’s name probably doesn’t have any real link to the guy. While the game is played in the pool, it’s also not at all related to water polo. The rules are similar to blind man’s bluff, which is just tag with a blindfold. Marco Polo (the game, not the guy), is played in the water and the person who is “it” has to tag people. They call out “Marco,” and everyone else says “Polo” so the person who’s “it” can pinpoint their locations. The game itself was widely known in America by the 60s before making it to Hong Kong in the 70s and later it made its way to the UK.
Because Marco Polo and blind man’s bluff are “easily modifiable games” in the same way (the core ruleset is basically tag with a blindfold), Marco Polo is sometimes cited as a modification of blind man’s bluff, which was popularized in the 16th century.
So you’re probably thinking of polo, that game people play on horseback. While the exact origins of the game are similarly unclear, they definitely predate Marco Polo himself. The name “polo” is derived from the word “ball,” though and not the guy’s name. It’s similar for water polo, in which the “polo” part of “water polo” still means “ball.” Water polo’s name comes from its original passing resemblance to polo (the horse one).
One of the origin stories for the game’s name is Polo’s apparent propensity for getting lost. The story holds that once he got separated from his family while on the trail and they called out “Marco” and “Polo” back and forth until he was found. We couldn’t find anything that substantiated this story though. While that makes sense since you don’t say your last name when someone calls out to you, it is kind of disappointing that the answer to the question at hand is “nobody really knows.”
See if you know your “old dead Europeans who went places” here.