The words “Who dat?” will resound throughout the land in the coming weekend, as the New Orleans Saints attempt to work one of their miracles on the frisky Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. “Who dat?—or its longer version, “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?”—has for almost 30 years been the motto of the now triumphant football team that was once so bad that its fans hid their faces under paper bags.
So who dat who said “who dat” first? It began, of course, with the phrase “Who’s that?” As you are well aware, the “th” sound in “that” is a voiced fricative, which is formed by the frictional rustling of air through narrowed passages in the oral cavity. The substitution of a dental or “d” sound for the “th” is common in certain English speakers, including those whose native tongues are German, French, and many Asian languages, which do not have the “th” sound, and also among Irish, Irish-Americans, and African-Americans. The “d” sound is often heard in Brooklynese, as in “dem bums” (who proved they really were by moving to Los Angeles), and in the Cajun and Creole patois of Louisiana.
The catch-phrase “Who dat?” probably originated in American minstrel shows in the 1800s. A song of 1898 was called “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?” (lyrics by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar). Many minstrel show skits featured the phrase “Who dat?” answered by “Who dat say who dat?” and then the never-fail punch line, “Who dat say who dat when I say who dat?”
As a sports chant, it was used by the Jaguars of Southern University in Baton Rouge from the 1960s and then spread to New Orleans public schools and to LSU before the Saints adopted it.
The National Football League has now sent cease-and-desist letters (i.e., if you don’t stop doing whatever it is you’re doing, a highly obnoxious lawyer will make life unpleasant for you) to vendors selling T-shirts with “Who Dat?” emblazoned on them. The NFL claims to own a trademark on those words, although a company called WhoDat, Inc. claims to have registered the trademark in 1983 for a recording of “When The Saints Go Marching In” featuring the repeated chant of “Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints?” (recorded by Aaron Neville and several Saints players). It became more or less official for the Saints after the recording was widely publicized by sportscaster Ron Swoboda.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou begs to inform you of the earliest instances that he has found of the phrase, to wit:
When Hamlet’s guards were at their post,
They thought they saw his father’s ghost,
And trembling as they stood thereat,
Their only question was, “Who dat?”
Macbeth encountered Witches three,
And he was nervous as could be.
The thane politely doffed his hat,
And asked those three old crones, “Who dat?”
And when poor Desdemona heard
A long soliloquy, she stirred,
And, thinking that it was the cat,
She called out sleepily, “Who dat?”
And thus you see that “other” Bard
Was clearly in the avant-garde
And with his feather-pen begat
That oft-repeated phrase, “Who dat?”