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The Greatest College Cheer
“Brek-ek-ek-ex ko-ax, ko-ax” leapt from the pages of Aristophanes—and spurred the baseball team to a championship season.

In movies of the white-flannels-and-raccoon-coat era, we frequently encounter enthusiastic collegians shouting “brek-ek-ek-ex” at sporting events. Behind that cinematic cliché is a real cheer invented by Yale students in the 1880s. But what is the source of these curious utterances? Fortunately for historians, the cheer in various spellings and versions was so widely known and used by the early 1900s that the originators held a reunion to record its history.

In April 1903, 12 members of the “13” Club, an eating club of the Class of 1886, agreed on these facts: On the afternoon of January 24, 1884, two members were studying the text of Aristophanes’ Frogs. As they scanned the text of the chorus of frogs on the banks of the river Styx, one discovered a line well suited to “make a great noise,” and the cheer “Brek-ek-ek-ex ko-ax, ko-ax” was born. They then added the words “oh-op-op”—Greek for “hello”—taken from another line spoken by Charon. A third friend possessed of a deep bass voice contributed the final line, “Parabalou” (or “lay to”) also spoken by Charon as his boat approaches the shore.

The three abandoned their studies that afternoon in favor of practicing the cheer, which they performed for the rest of the members that evening at a celebratory supper at a local restaurant. At midnight the party broke up, and the club crossed the campus “shouting their battle-cry.” Approaching Durfee Hall, they spied a light in the window of their beloved Greek instructor, Frank B. Tarbell, Class of 1873, and dedicated a performance of the Greek cheer to him. Most of the college was awakened and pleasantly puzzled by its meaning, but the Class of 1886 appropriated it as its own. After their graduation it was adopted by the University at large.

The cheer was introduced to the public at an athletic event for the first time at the Yale-Dartmouth baseball game held at Hamilton Park on June 2, 1884. Dartmouth was ahead nine runs to two at the end of the fifth inning. In desperation, one of the senior players dashed to the bleachers and asked the sophomores to test the powers of their ear-piercing cheer on the fading Yale nine. As if by magic, the Dartmouth pitcher lost his arm and his teammates their heads while the energized Yale team scored six runs in one inning. The final tally of 12 to 11 in Yale’s favor led to a championship for the team and the continued use of the cheer through an era in which Greek was otherwise declining in popularity. Other schools copied the hit cheer and often parodied it, as did Penn with its “Brackey Corax Corix, Roree.”

After the “13” Club’s history of the cheer was published in the Yale Alumni Weekly, a member of the Class of 1883 quickly disputed it in a letter to the editor. George Johnston wrote that he remembered well a night in the winter of 1880–81 when he and other sophomores made an immense bonfire fueled by barrels from the new opera house being built across Chapel Street. They were also studying The Frogs under professor Thomas Day Seymour. While the flames crackled and soared, they joined hands and danced madly about chanting the frogs’ chorus. The sophomores continued to shout the chorus on all occasions with many variations, and Johnston recalled that the Class of 1884 did as well. The development of the immortal cheer was gradual, he felt, but he gave credit to the Class of 1886 for final embellishments.

A graduate of the Class of 1881 then claimed its introduction by his class, while a younger alumnus of the Class of 1893 complained about the speeding up of its delivery. Over the years it had changed from sedate to quick, rapid, and faster yet. The Class of 1903, he said, split the air with a “Breketiax, Quacks Quacks,” which made it virtually impossible to recognize. In 1912, Douglas Moore ’15, a future Pulitzer Prize–winning composer, set the cheer to music with the title Parabalou. Today, the Budweiser frogs’ chorus may be the better known, but the Yale frogs’ refrain is definitely the classic.  the end


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