Where Did The Phrase “March Madness” Come From?

If it’s spring, it must be time for our fancy to turn to thoughts of basketball and, of course, March Madness—an interesting term, if we’ve ever heard one.

Would you be surprised to find out the term March Madness didn’t originate with basketball? The phrase seems to date back to the 1800s and is thought to be connected to the much older expression mad as a March hare. But more on that later, as the most important order of business is basketball and some of the unique terms it’s inspired.

Why does March Madness refer to basketball?

March Madness has referred to basketball games since at least 1939, when the phrase appeared in an article by Henry Porter, an Illinois high school athletics administrator. Coincidentally, the first NCAA men’s college basketball tournament was held in 1939, with eight teams competing, but it would be almost another 50 years before it came to be known as March Madness.

In the 1940s, March Madness was used for Illinois state basketball tournaments, before spreading elsewhere in the Midwest region.

We can thank the sports world for a slew of phrases we regularly. See if any of these are a slam dunk for you.

Then in the 1980s, March Madness came to be associated with the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. Many credit commentator Brent Musburger—who knew the term from having covered the Illinois state tournaments—with popularizing it by using it during NCAA tournament broadcasts in reference to particularly wild games.

The NCAA eventually trademarked the phrase and now uses March Madness as an official term to refer to and promote the tournament, which is known for its many, often exciting games (67 between 68 teams), including some buzzer-beating, bracket-busting upsets. While the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament is also sometimes referred to as March Madness, it’s not officially marketed this way by the NCAA.

What is bracketology?

And so we come to another term we’ll be tossing around during March Madness: bracketology. This recent addition to the dictionary is defined as the practice of “predicting and tracking the process of elimination among sequentially paired opponents in a tournament,” which basically means predicting what teams will win in a group of pairings like the NCAA basketball tournament. The term surfaced as early as 1997 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

(If you also love punctuation and basketball, you might note an earlier, unrelated instance of bracketology is dated to 1983, and meant adding typographical brackets, as [ ], to passages in manuscripts.)

Let’s bracket this conversation with a discussion on the wide world of brackets and parentheses, please.

Where does bracketology come from?

Bracketology combines bracket, in the sports sense of “a diagram for tracking advancement in tournament,” and ology, a word-forming element indicating “branch of knowledge, science.” The term playfully elevates the sports pastime to a discipline or science.

Stages of sports tournaments have been termed brackets since the early 1900s, from bracket as a “grouping” in the late 1800s, a sense informed by pairs of typographical brackets for enclosing text or numbers.

The tree-diagram structure of NCAA brackets indeed calls up such brackets, named after the original architectural brackets, a type of L-shaped wall support. The word bracket may derive from a Romance root meaning “breeches,” the architectural devices perhaps resembling a pair of legs or the codpieces historically worn in them.

That could make bracketology, with a liberal literalism, the “study of pants” or “jock straps.” (That was not what you were expecting, was it?)

What else does March Madness mean?

Circling back to March Madness, it’s worth nothing that people have used March madness to refer to “a form of madness or uncharacteristic behaviour said to affect people in March” (according to the OED) since the 1900s. The expression may have come from the erratic, tempestuous weather of the season; alternatively it may have something to do with hares, a larger relative of the common rabbit.

These earlier senses of March madness are derived from the sense of mad meaning “abnormally furious.” Today in American English mad chiefly means “angry,” whereas in British English it can often mean “crazy.” Today the NCAA March Madness incites both anger and insanity, depending on your brackets.

WATCH: How Does The Word "Mad" Have So Many Meanings?

Is March Madness related to rabbits?

The aphorism as mad as a March hare, has been around since at least the mid-1500s and refers to the phenomenon of hares becoming very aggressive during breeding season in March.

The expression March mad, which may be a shortening of the aphorism, emerged shortly thereafter in the early 1600s. In an 1872 magazine Odd and Ends, the writer notes “How is a hare madder in March than at any other time? or how is its March madness displayed?”

Lewis Carroll nods to this bunny cliché with his characters the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, both of whom appear in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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You'll be no better off than the March Hare if you miss out on learning these other terms from Lewis Carroll that leave the maddest hatter flummoxed.

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